Monday, September 8, 2014

A Taste of Greece

by Christy Panganiban


Even before entering college I was familiar with the concept of studying abroad. However, the idea of living in a completely foreign country while balancing school and adjusting to a new environment with new rules seemed quite intimidating.  Admittedly, I had some of the same qualms during my sophomore year in college while researching the study abroad programs offered by the University of Illinois. When I first came across the “4 Week ‘Renewable Energy Concepts’” program, I had two immediate concerns: culture barriers and the question, “is it worth it?” The topic of study, however, pushed me to consider this program since being a student studying civil and environmental engineering with the interest in sustainability, it was exactly the topic I wanted to dedicate a summer learning about.

Before traveling to Greece, I had little experience living in a foreign country; I had also heard of the critical state of Greece’s economy and had been tirelessly warned by my mother of all the risks accompanying a trip to a foreign land. With these dangers in mind, I was surprised to realize how safe I felt at all times. During the first day we arrived in Greece, the street signs initially made me uneasy. After a couple days, I found that there was almost always an English translation posted or announced. Fortunately, free Wi-Fi access was very common in public places; if I ever needed a map or quick translation, it only took a moment to pull up an app on my phone. Lucky for me, every Greek I interacted with also spoke English, especially the younger people who are taught how to speak English in school. Thus, if I was ever unsure of where I was, I never had a problem asking a local Greek for assistance. Regardless of age, I found Greeks to be very friendly people who have fun practicing their English and welcoming tourists to their country. Though the culture barriers seemed daunting at first, it only took a matter of a couple days to adjust to the new environment.

For the majority of the four weeks, myself and two other students lived together in a three bedroom apartment in a neighborhood of Athens called Neos Kosmos. Within a 7 minute walk from the apartment was the metro station, small grocery stores, bakeries, and gyro shops. Some nights we cooked our meals in the kitchen of our apartment, but many times we ate out, unable to turn down authentic Greek food, including meaty gyros sold for only 1-2 euros. With Professor Zahos, we also ventured to four islands of Greece (Hydra, Poros, Aegina, and Crete) and to different sites all over the mainland. Since these trips had been arranged prior, we had the privilege of taking in as much of the breathtaking, rich-in-history country as we could in just four short weeks. We visited historical locations and toured ancient sites including Mycenae, Olympia, Delphi, and Meteora.  The three of us were also given the opportunity to spend our “free” weekend exploring Santorini on our own, where we rode donkeys, visited a volcano, swam in the hot springs, and enjoyed every beach on the island riding ATVs. I cannot stress how incredibly beautiful both the mainland and islands are, but I can say with full certainty that I will be returning.

The experience was completely worth it; it seems silly that I even questioned its value. The lectures by graduate students and professors at the Agricultural University of Athens (AUA) on renewable energy concepts, current/upcoming technology, and the program called HOMER were not only relevant to my previous studies but opened my eyes to the current state of our planet. The trip to the University of Thessaly in Volos, the tour of the Center for Renewable Energy Sources, and the various technical field trips throughout the month gave me a well-rounded understanding of renewable energy sources. Through this experience, we learned how to utilize HOMER to design an optimized microgrid system for our assigned Greek islands using real-world, current data.

Without a single shred of doubt, this trip was worth all the time, energy, money, and planning it took. Besides gaining 2 credit hours, I acquired memories, knowledge, experience, and a new perspective that will remain treasured for all time.

This article is one in a series of blog entries written by University of Illinois students who were selected to travel to Greece to participate in a four-week Renewable Energy Concepts Study and Cultural Tour, provided by theInternational Programs in Engineering Office of the College of Engineering. Tour participants embarked on technical field trips, cultural excursions, and collaborated with students from the Agricultural University of Athens and the University of Thessaly in Volos to research and apply renewable energy concepts to real-world technical and societal questions . This program is partially supported by the European Union Center through a European Union Center of Excellence grant. It is planned to repeat the program in summer 2015.

Christy Panganiban is studying civil and environmental engineering and will be graduating in May 2016.

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