Surrounded by ancient art and architecture and standing on the same ground where great philosophers once walked, Mercer students learned to better see and understand the world around them.
Each summer, Mercerians travel to Greece for a four-week study abroad program. Twenty-one students, three faculty members, and 10 adults in the University’s Lifelong Learning program participated in the 2022 trip.
The Greece program was created by philosophy professor Dr. Charlotte Thomas, who has been leading students on international experiences since 2000. That first trip, in which she took a dozen students to Paris for two weeks, was a learning experience that sparked a desire to More ▼.
“I expected to enjoy the city, the food, the culture and the museums,” Dr Thomas said. “What I really didn’t understand about studying abroad before I did it was the conversations that are possible when you have a group in one place and there are no distractions. It really changes the nature of the educational process. I came home from that trip to Paris in 2000 amazed at what it was and what was possible.
The following summer, Dr. Thomas took students to Italy and hired art professor Eric O’Dell to add another level of learning to the experience. They have been friends since their undergraduate studies at Mercer. O’Dell said the 2001 trip was his first trip abroad, and since then he has been on nearly every trip abroad with Dr. Thomas.
In 2005, Dr. Thomas fell in love with Greece while accompanying Dr. Robert Scott Nash, Professor of New Testament, on his trip abroad. This inspired her to reorganize her program so that it included a three-city rotation in Paris; Florence, Italy; and Athens, Greece, but she ultimately decided to focus solely on her studies in Athens.
Mercer students earn six credit hours while in Greece. Everyone takes Philosophy 269: Human Nature and Art with Dr. Thomas, and then has the option of taking an art course with O’Dell or an Integrative Curriculum (INT) course with a third faculty member. This summer, Ben Dunn—art teacher and director of the McEachern Art Center—joined the program for the first time and taught INT 301/ART 380: Repatriation to the Parthenon.
“To go to one of these great cities is to be able to see these remarkable products of human genius. This is not only sculpture, but also buildings, paintings and theaters. Seeing it matters, so learning how to see it matters,” Dr. Thomas said. “Ben’s class is learning to see the context of these objects and what that context implies. Eric’s art class teaches them how to literally see things and make that connection between their eye and their hand. I try to get them thinking about the meaning and the themes.”
New this year, participants spent a week in ancient Corinth, in addition to three weeks in Athens. Each week they had four days of coursework, followed by an unscheduled three-day weekend to spend as they pleased, Dr. Thomas said.
They stayed in apartments, which allowed them to cook for each other and use common spaces for class meetings. Having that “home base” is an important part of the program, O’Dell said. Students experience these famous places together while living in the neighborhoods.
In the evening, the group would meet on the roof of the apartments and learn from Dr. Thomas about the places they would visit the next morning, which included the Acropolis, Kerameikos, Agora, Mycenae, Nemea, Delphi, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Plato’s Academy. Dr. Thomas focused on the history of artworks and architecture and how they can help us understand the human condition.
After lunch the students went to seminars for their other class. In her INT course, Dunn uses examples from Greek antiquity to teach students about global cases of repatriation, legacies of colonialism, and ideas about imperial politics and cultural ownership. Students read ancient works by the Roman philosopher Cicero as well as contemporary academic journals and UN charters; listened to podcasts; and analyzed current events.
“My goal was to open up the questions and really try to keep them open,” Dunn said. “The level of engagement the students offered made it really successful.
“You’ll hear dialogues from the class going on, and then they’ll show up at a museum the next day. Being close to that and being able to capture their enthusiasm was incredibly energizing. They were able to take quite difficult, nuanced ideas and bring them to life. The best feedback you can get is that people want to learn.”
Students from various majors study art with O’Dell by taking either Art 115: Fundamentals of Drawing or an independent advanced course tailored to their interests. In addition to the class sessions, which focused on skills and techniques, they sketched on the Greek sites. O’Dell said the goal is to help them gain perspective through their art.
“There is no secret vitamin or genetic strain that means you can paint. The real work and the really important thing I think I do as a teacher is to make people see more clearly,” he said. “To go and see things where they were born is to see them in their full context. It’s mysterious. It can be kind of overwhelming. You really encounter the thing itself. I think for my class, you touch it with your eyes.
Athenian George Kokos, historian and archaeologist, is a constant presence and source of expertise for this Mercer study abroad program. He leads educational workshops and tours in Athens for school groups and met Dr. Thomas and O’Dell by chance about a decade ago. Kokos said they found they had many things in common, and he was impressed by Mercer’s traditions, philosophy, leadership and educational environment.
Every summer since then, he has spent time with the Mercer group, joining them for field trips, classes and workshops and sharing his knowledge. Cocos counts Marathon, Epidaurus, Delphi and Corinth among his favorite places, which he shares with others.
“I’ve built a special personal relationship with the faculty at Mercer, so Mercer has always been a priority for me over the past few years,” he said. “One of the most important things for me is the interaction we have with the students and their willingness to learn and be open-minded.”
Rising sophomore Kate Zumer, an English major, took her first art class in Greece and saw her skills improve. Greece has always been a dream travel destination and she challenged herself to be more adventurous on this trip and make the most of her time there. She said it was exciting to study art and philosophy in a city where the culture was built on them.
“Immersion was a big part of it for me. It definitely helped me adapt to the classes better. I would see in my spare time what we were going to talk about in class,” she said. “I cannot understate how amazing this trip has been. For dinner most nights we went out and sat on the roof. We had an amazing view of the Acropolis and would talk about our day. Making those connections with people over something like this was so amazing and really helped me grow as a person.”
Rising sophomore Anthony Guerrero was a marketing major in the pre-med program when he went on a trip abroad and switched to a double major in philosophy and French upon his return. In addition to the Philosophy of Human Nature and Art course, he participated in an independent philosophy class with Dr. Thomas while in Greece.
“Everyone on the trip was so passionately committed to learning, and the faculty were so passionately committed to facilitating that learning. It made me realize that this is what I love; this is what I want to study; that’s what I stand by,” he said. “It was one of the best experiences. There’s something much deeper and more educational about being out there with what you’re learning about, interacting not just mentally but physically.”
This last trip to Greece came full circle for some of the participants. Dunn first traveled to Greece with Dr. Thomas and Dr. Nash in 2005 as a Mercer student, igniting his love for the country. Then in 2006 he went to Paris with Dr. Thomas and O’Dell, who also brought his wife, Greta, and their two daughters, Helen and Elizabeth.
This summer, Dunn joined the program as a professor, and Greta and Helen, now a junior at Mercer majoring in graphic design, participated again.
“There was a beautiful circle that was made,” O’Dell said. “Walking around the sites with someone who was a student and is now a colleague of mine in the art department was very nice. I think it was also very Mercer.
Dunn was also able to meet Dr. Nash, who was in Greece with another group for the Mercer On Mission trip — a meeting 17 years in the making, he said.
“Studying abroad was really transformative for me as a student,” Dunn said. “I was fortunate enough to join the faculty at Mercer, and it’s so fun to pass on some of those experiences and see students grow in a way that I can relate to. I love to travel and I love to see that spark come alive in younger people. They access the world in a new and very special way.
O’Dell said one of the biggest thrills of participating in this study abroad program is sharing the wonder of the students. Many of them have not traveled much before, and some never thought they would have the opportunity to do so.
“The next thing they know, they’re walking into the place where Socrates lived,” he said. “They realize they absolutely have to be there. For them to discover this journey of intelligence and maturity, that’s where I get my sense of wonder from… from them.”
Kokkos said this immersive study abroad experience is life-changing for students.
“You live the experience,” he said. “It’s wonderful to read a book and imagine things. But when you actually go there and see the places and live in these places that you’ve only read about in books, it completely transforms your thinking. It transforms everything inside you.”