What You’ll Find in This Post:
An overview of the group demographics
A list of some of the group experiences
Some thoughts America’s relationship with political correctness
What travelling in a large group taught me about myself as a traveler
One of our group photos in Syntagma Square. Photo courtesy of VCU Globe.
One of the things that made my experience in Greece unique was the size of my travel group. My first study abroad trip was composed of 12 people, students and staff combined. My second study abroad experience, the VCUarts Qatar exchange program, was only 4 students. This trip, in contrast, had close to 30 people, which naturally changed the dynamic and colored the experience quite vividly.
There were four staff members, two guides, and a little over twenty students. Most of the group came from Richmond—all part of the VCU Globe program—while six of us came from the VCUQ campus. Although, it was funny because technically I wasn’t a VCUQ student; I just so happened to be studying abroad in Qatar the semester this trip was offered. The group was also overwhelmingly female, leaving only three men in our midst.
Funniest thing about being in a big group? They are always in the first version of any photograph you take.
So, what was it like travelling in a group like that? That’s what I’ll get into next. I’m gonna be real with you, though, there were a lot of difficult moments, more than I anticipated. That said, a lot of the stories I’m about to briefly recap make it sound like the entire group was full of drama, but I want to let it be known that most of the group wasn’t. It was more like there were a few people that the drama kept circling around, like a game of catch or whack-a-mole, the spotlight hitting them every so often in that predictably unexpected way. Meanwhile, most others in the group were genuinely chill, people who were level-headed, fun to be around, and good at checking themselves.
With that disclaimer stated, let’s get into some of the most memorable moments from my group experience. Before we begin, I’d like to mention something one of the chaperones said. They said that, in their experience, when you put that many students in a new environment for such a short amount of time, tensions always flare. They had seen it before, and they weren’t surprised to see it again.
Alright, so what happened: An abbreviated list
The crowd at the Acropolis
General frustration – For all the reasons that chaperone pointed out, many people—myself included—seemed generally on edge throughout the trip. People were physically exhausted, my stomach wouldn’t settle, and with there being so many of us it was easy to get separated when crossing busy streets. I particularly remember being peeved when, on the most crowded Acropolis visitation day of the year, me and four other students were yelled at by a chaperone for separating from the group. The reality is that we didn’t separate from the group intentionally; in fact, we thought we were following the group. After all, when you can only see two heads in front of you—and those two heads belong to your group members—you think you’re following the group, especially when you’re also contending with keeping your footing as you walk down a dangerously uneven hill surrounded by literally a hundred people moving in four different directions. I was severely offended—more offended than I’d usually be—by the chaperone’s accusation that we would simply “do our own thing”, which in turn had somehow disrupted the tour timeline in one fell swoop. However, it also seemed like the chaperone was on edge too, probably overwhelmed by the crowd and the prospect that they may have lost some students in that crowd. The reality is that it was nobody’s fault; the environment just made things difficult for everyone. And yet, all of us found someone to blame.
Racism – A white European guy in our group showed racism toward minorities in a way that teetered somewhere between racism, general ignorance, and jokes made in poor taste, like a blow-up bop bag wobbling in the center of a skewed floor compass. I had already had a racist experience with him prior to arriving in Athens and I spent the trip observing his poor but slowly evolving behavior toward minorities. From what I could gather, the guy was in the process of becoming less discriminatory, but watching that process—and sometimes being involved in it—garnered many eye rolls, smh’s, and internal musings of “This dude . . . 🤦🏾♀️”. If you want to hear the whole story, check out the post Being a Black American Woman in Athens.
Class + racial + national discrimination – It’s kind of hard to place one word on it because in Qatar these things are tied together. Your race implies your nationality, and your nationality implies your class. I bring up Qatar because this particular situation involved discrimination from the VCUQ batch. You see, there was a mixed raced student in our larger group and one of the races they were mixed with was a race that implied a nationality that is considered to be of a lower social class in Qatar. So, even though this student was American, when one of the VCUQ students found out they were mixed with a minority, they began to treat them differently. It was to the point where this student, who later came to Qatar, requested that faculty not share their mixed-race status with anyone because it was easier for them to navigate social groups if they could pass for simply American.
Class discrimination – There was a wealthy student in our group, one who was open about their wealth, not to boast about it, but to express their awareness of their own privilege when relevant. There were people in the group—all of which from lesser financial backgrounds—who would joke with this student about their good financial standing (the key word in that sentence being with). There was another student in the group, though, who turned these jokes into insults. This student merged the wealthy student’s financial standing with America’s sordid history of discrimination and foreign affairs, which naturally contributed to the overall tension in the group. That said, at the heart of it, the issue was less about class and more about . . .
Misplaced aggression – There was a student whose family was from a country that America bombed, which unsurprisingly had a profound effect on their life. It seemed like they were experiencing layers upon layers of hurt, as anyone would, but it seemed like all this hurt got tossed at another student who was male, privileged, and white . . . sort of. This student was actually mixed race, mixed with a minority whose people also had a history of America being all up in their shit when it came to foreign affairs. Nonetheless, he became a target of aggression and accusation. One situation even went so far as to accuse him of trying to take advantage of a student that he was genuinely helping, a tipsy student with health problems who had been abandoned by their clique on the hostel staircase.
On group trips I always tend to fall to the back of the group. This the result of some of my photographs.
Alcohol – The legal drinking age in Greece was 18, meaning that everyone in the group could legally drink, people who would normally be underaged in the U.S. This unsurprisingly caused a handful of problems, like the one mentioned above. Also, while we’re on the topic, I bought some tiny ouzo bottles and shot glasses for my parents as a souvenir. However, I couldn’t bring it back to Qatar with me, so I asked one of the American students to take it home with them back to Richmond and mail it to my parents for me. The student agreed, I gave them the address, and I told them I’d Venmo whatever the shipping cost was. Ultimately, they never sent it, I stopped hearing from them, and I’m pretty sure they drank it.
Sex – I am 96% certain that I listened to my female roommate give a male student a hand job on the bottom bunk. I’m assuming they thought I was asleep. I told a chaperone, who immediately declared it was nasty, and I think they talked to my roommate about it. Or did I talk to her about it? Perhaps both of us did? In truth, I don’t fully remember how the situation ended, probably because I tend to muffle or completely block out events like this (a bittersweet side effect of past trauma).
Another group photo at Pampiraiki, a center devoted to helping refugees
Men? Women? Privilege? – I’m not quite sure what to call this one because there may have been multiple intersections at play. During one of our volunteer days we were told to gather and organize bags of sanitary napkins that would later be passed out to female refugees. It just so happened that the students who were in charge of this task were all women, which perhaps contributed to our collective decision not to include in the delivery bags pads that didn’t have wrappers and/or had been on the floor (cotton-side down). Eventually, a man joined our group and asked about a particular pile of pads, to which we replied that that was the reject pile, the pads that we weren’t including those in the bags because they were dirty. At first, he nodded, but a few minutes later I noticed that he began putting those pads in bags anyway. Now, on one hand, if you need a pad you need a pad, and if you’ve travelled all this way, enduring all manner of conditions to better your life (or just live in general), perhaps you won’t be too picky about the quality of your sanitary napkin. Perhaps our decision to not include the pads we perceived as dirty is tied directly to our privilege as American women, where we have a ton of options in terms of quality and accessibility. On the other hand, though, the pads we didn’t want to include had objectively mysterious origins or had come into contact with the dirty floor of a warehouse. As women, I’m sure all of us immediately knew how we would feel to discover we had been unwittingly given a dirty pad. We’d feel 1) Betrayed and mistrustful of the organization that gave it to us, 2) Insulted over the fact that this organization seemingly devalues women’s health to the point of expecting us to sit with a dirty piece of cotton between our crotch all day, and 3) Disgusted and fearful over whether our health would be compromised from literal dirt being dangerously close to our reproductive system.
Political correctness – An ongoing theme amongst the group was political correctness. It didn’t culminate into discussions about political correctness, but instead the effects of it just kept manifesting every so often. The U.S. has a complicated relationship with political correctness and sometimes we will avoid saying something—or say it vaguely—out of fear that it’s not politically correct. This ultimately makes it impossible to communicate clearly, which doubly sucks when the ideas you’re trying to communicate are meant to help the group you’re also trying to tiptoe around for fear of offending them. As it pertains to the trip, it often seemed as though people were too worried to say exactly what they meant and too quick to comment on what they thought someone meant. It all boils down to a unique 3-way line between respect, clarity, and freedom of speech.
An example: One of the students from VCUQ made a comment praising their salon back in Qatar. They said something to the effect of the masseuses must have something in their blood because they were so good at what they did, but in the same sentence they also mentioned that the masseuses were Filipino. The Americans they were talking to immediately stiffened up with silent judgement, leaving the student confused. When I first heard the VCUQ student tell this story, my first thought was probably the same thing the Americans had thought: Wow, that’s racist. However, when I thought about what the student said vs. what they meant, I realized that the statement was about the talent of the masseuses; they weren’t equating their talent to their race or nationality, and it really seemed like the innocent verbal missteps that happen when two different cultural languages meet in conversation. However, the fact they mentioned that the masseuses were Filipino does beg the question of “Why mention it if it wasn’t relevant?” And when it comes to the Americans, who clearly had a problem with what the student said, they also didn’t try to understand what the student meant; they didn’t ask for clarity, they just made a judgement and kept it moving. In short, I feel two ways about this situation and I think that there were communication issues, closemindedness, and ignorance on either side of that conversation.
So, how did all this end?
A group photo of us at the temporary headquarters for the U.S. Embassy in Athens. Photo courtesy of VCU Globe.
Part of our last evening in Athens was composed of a decompression session, a long conversation about, well, everything. Moderated by RA’s and former RA’s, the conversation began with reflections, evolved into delicately pointing out some of the troubles that had occurred, gradually escalated into a bit of venting, and eventually evened out in what appeared to be a healthy way. However, I—and the other students from the Qatar campus—left when the conversation began to get heated, obeying the quiet “yallah” whispered to us by one of the VCUQ chaperones. It was suggested we leave the conversation because, at that moment, it didn’t have anything to do with us.
Our small group of six sat downstairs and passed the time by talking about American political correctness and oversensitivity caused by growing up in the powder keg bubble of the U.S., away from the rest of the world. In this moment, and many others throughout the trip, I was happy to be associated with the VCUQ group and not the VCU one, despite the fact I had only been attending VCUQ for two months as a temporary student. I was still very much a VCU-Richmond student—no matter how many times students from the home campus forgot—but I didn’t remind people of it because I wanted to disassociate from the drama that was stemming mostly from the Richmond group.
All that said, being alone was nice
A photo of our group in Monastiraki Square. Photo courtesy of VCU Globe.
Even though I found myself wanting to associate with my adopted VCUQ group more than my Richmond brethren, an even greater truth is that I found myself not wanting to associate with anybody. Though most of the drama was between students from the home campus, some still came from the people in the Qatar group. To add, even without the drama I couldn’t relate to a lot of people in the group anyway. Things like being the only art student from the home campus, being the only fine art student in general, not enjoying shopping at department stores, being the only graduating senior, wanting to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and being disinterested in alcohol were a few things that made it so that I didn’t quite fit into any clique within the overall group dynamic.
That said, there were two moments where I went out on my own, an action that is always discouraged when studying abroad—especially when you’re a woman and when don’t tell anyone you’re leaving—but I did it anyway (just remember, kids, to do as I say, not as I do). In the moments when I ventured out by my lonesome, I didn’t stray far. I walked to a nearby Starbucks for a commemorative mug, I walked around the corner to a souvlaki place, and I stumbled upon a quiet pastel-colored neighborhood about fifteen minutes from the hostel.
And you know what? These moments by myself were some of the best moments I had in Athens. Alone eating vegetarian souvlaki in front of a church. Alone people-watching in the square. Alone roaming through nearby streets in the early morning. Alone in a Starbucks. Alone browsing through the market. Alone. These moments were some of the few times I didn’t feel trapped, frustrated, drained, or invisible. I had a chance to clear my head, some time to recharge and prepare for whatever was about to happen when I reentered the group. I later realized that these moments were necessary and that without them I probably would have had an even more difficult time, mentally and emotionally, than I was already having. So, if you feel the need to escape from the 20+ people in your group, I fully support that decision . . . just maybe text a teacher, leave a note, and pin your location.