by Kate Hoving
What motivates a student to study on a summer program in Greece? The allure of azure water, sandy beaches, stucco walls and ancient ruins against a cloudless sky? The chance to explore this unique country that is at the crossroads of history as well as continents?
Or perhaps the pull is more strategic, a desire to be more competitive in a 21st century, global marketplace.
Whatever inspires or compels a student to take on that challenge of the unfamiliar is no more important than any other. But this is a tale of a student with an impetus all her own for traveling to Athens the summer of 2017.
A matter of principle
Our traveler, Madison Miller ’20, is a biology major. She is no stranger to travel, having participated in several mission trips through her church to various states in the U.S. She felt compelled by a need to help others, but also to learn about the world beyond her home in Northern Virginia. “I crave the chance to learn from different experiences and realities. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
At William & Mary, she knew she wanted to study abroad, and didn’t waste any time organizing her first trip for the summer after her freshman year. She chose the W&M Program in Athens, an intensive three-week summer program in Ancient Greek Studies run through the Department of Classical Studies. Students visit archaeological sites and excursions take them throughout Athens and Nafplio, and other places of interest, such as Delphi, Olympia, Santorini, and Mycenea.
Miller, who goes by Maddy, went to Athens not for the reasons listed above. This remarkable and curious young woman was on a quest to find an answer to a question that consumed her: “Given the political climate in America right now, I was wondering, was our current system the intent, not just of the Founding Fathers, but of Aristotle?”
That could seem like an overly ambitious goal for a study abroad trip, except for the fact that her odyssey intersected with that of an equally remarkable woman who was leading the program to Athens.
Program director as guide and mentor
Vassiliki (“Lily”) Panoussi, Professor in the Classical Studies Department, is a native of Greece, received her BA in Classical Philology, from the University of Athens, and her Ph.D. in Classics, from Brown University. Panoussi’s research focuses on Latin Literature of the Late Republic and early Empire, and on Vergil in particular. She has taught a range of courses on Greek and Roman literature and culture and all levels of Greek and Latin. She is currently at work on a book project on women’s religious experiences in Roman Literature.
The trip in 2017 was the second time Panoussi had led the program; her first was in 2015. (The classics trip alternates each year between Rome/Pompeii and Athens/Nafpoli). “It was particularly exciting for me to share my love of my hometown and of Greece with my students, so I was eager to take up the task.”
The students are not only classics or history majors. “Most students who go on this trip have studied Ancient Greece at some level and have an interest in its rich history and culture. It is a particular thrill for the students to visit the majority of the places they have studied in class, such as the Acropolis, for example, or see up close some of the most famous art objects in the world,” says Panoussi. But beyond the emphasis on classical history, the experience encompasses more than a look back at the past. “They also have a chance to experience life in a European city, live like modern Athenians in apartments, and enjoy the food and the culture that the modern country has to offer,” she adds. “Overall, it is a life-changing experience for most of them and it is very special for me to be able to guide them through it.”
It is just as special for the students she guides. Students say that Panoussi makes the people of the past and their monuments come alive. Miller sums up the universal regard for Panoussi and the impact she has: “Professor Panoussi was unbelievable. I can’t speak highly enough. She was so influential, and paramount in making the trip unforgettable.”
Getting ready in Williamsburg
In preparation for the program, students met on every other week for two hours. “Professor Panoussi assigned readings on the contemporary Greek government to gain an understanding of modern Greece, because most of what we would focus on during the trip was ancient Greece. It was about giving context to us.” Miller recalls.
“A lot of people were classical studies majors or minors but they were maybe seven of us out of 17 that weren’t. One of my dearest friends is a neuroscience chemistry major. I was biology. There was an accounting major. It was really nice to have a group with different backgrounds come together. We learned some Greek, and we had really great discussions about the readings.”
The program’s itinerary and excursions were designed for more than just scenic or tourist value. The sites they would visit were to be the focus of individual research projects. Each student, as part of their grade for the course, had to choose a location out of the some 18 locations visited, research its history and significance, and then do a presentation there.
“My students have always done research in conjunction with these trips,” Panoussi asserts. “Even though ancient sites and artifacts have been studied for a long time, the new generations ask different questions and so we reach different conclusions. New knowledge and understanding is produced every day. My students have done research on mystery cults, medicine, burial practices and have often connected them with today’s customs and contemporary concerns.”
The students could reinforce and enhance their experiences with documentation and research. William & Mary’s institutional partner, College Year Athens (CYA), not only managed housing and logistics, but through the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies (DIKEMES) provided access to a facility with computers and Harvard library databases, so even though they were traveling, they could pull together information and prepare the presentation and handouts.
“Students usually are successful in finding ways to connect their own interests to the material we cover in that class,” she explains. “Maddy Miller last summer did a project on dreams used for healing purposes at the sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus and was able to connect with similar practices in China, but other students have explored how social hierarchies were reproduced in seating arrangements at theaters and sports events in antiquity and have connected it with modern seating practices in similar venues.”
Miller explains how she came to select Epidaurus, a site of ancient healing, for her project. “I picked it because that is where medicine stems from and that was really fascinating to me,” Miller said. But it wasn’t her first choice.
“We picked a place in the very beginning. I met with Professor Panoussi, and I asked what she thought I’d should do. I was thinking that maybe I’d do Poseidon’s temple because it seemed cool, but when I was telling her a little bit more about me, and my interest in biology, and she said, ‘Maybe you should consider Epidaurus. Here are some articles you can go read. Here’s a photo of the site itself.’”
“I read more about it, and I fell in love.”
No rest for the weary
Although travel from town to town was by bus, they were anything but sedentary, traveling by foot most of the time.
Their days started around 7 or 8am, and they would visit two or three sites every day, finishing up around 3pm. “I really liked that,” exclaimed Miller. “You’re tired, but it’s what you want to do when you’re there.”
One of the many advantages of Panoussi’s being a native is that she understands the impact of the climate on even the most enthusiastic travelers. “The first day we did the Acropolis bright and early,” Miller recalled. “Professor Panoussi told us that as the summer goes on, the more popular it becomes. And we went early, because Greece gets really hot. Some days I was there it was 102 degrees!”
On that first day, they saw the ruins of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone theatre on the Acropolis, learning about its purpose in Ancient Greece. At the end of the trip, they returned to the Odeon to experience it as contemporary Athenians do, watching a silent film alongside locals and tourists, with the Athens symphony orchestra playing the score. “It was at twilight; it was unbelievable,” Miller remembers.
Leaving Athens, their first main stop was Nafplio, a picturesque town on the Argolic Gulf. Miller remembers, “It was stunning!” But in the same breath describes their exploring Palamidi’s Fortress, one of its major sites. “They say it has something like a thousand stairs, but we did that hike!”
“I don’t persevere through physical pain, but I ended up in great shape. And again, it was Professor Panoussi who made the difference,” Miller recounts. “She’d say, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to be hiking up this huge site, so I’m warning you.’ It was a mental preparation, and because she was so ready and she would say enthusiastically, ‘You’re going to love this!’ I don’t know what came over me, but I found I was saying, ‘Let’s do this!’”
Epidaurus in person
Databases can’t replace the thrill and unique opportunity to experience the sites in person and through the eyes of those most immersed at the moment: “When we would go to different sites, often it was the director of the excavation, maybe a visiting professor, who would lead us around the site,” Miller recalls. “It was really special to get to hear from someone for whom this particular site is their life right now.”
At each site a student would give a 10-minute presentation. The emphasis was on analysis, and presentation skills. No powerpoints or microphones. It was just as it might have been in ancient times. “We would all sit and listen, and we would learn. Oh, gosh, it was so cool!” Miller remembers.
Epidaurus in person was everything Miller had hoped. “What was so interesting is that you can really see the evolution of when the Romans are coming through and then when the Christians came through.” In addition to its history, the physical site inspired as well. “It’s a huge site. There’s a sports complex, where they held games. And it’s beautiful to see where the bathing occurred. Both were so therapeutic. We know about endorphins now, but you can see the building blocks of what we understand now.”
The site has a huge theater as well, so there were actually two presentations at Epidaurus. Miller’s focused on its medicinal aspect, “But my friend Rachel McCoy ’19, a marketing major, did her presentation on the visual and aural aspects of dramatic presentations. That was really interesting.”
Miller’s presentation at Epidaurus and research in Greece and at William & Mary culminated in a research paper: Dream Interpretation as a Means of Medicinal Function in Greek Antiquity. Her imagination and enthusiasm were inspired by her visit. She sees the site not as ruins, but as the vibrant place it used to be. “People would come to this site from all over to see Asclepius, the god of healing,” she describes. “They would go through a purification ritual with the priest and then go down into the labyrinth. It was like being in a dreamlike state, where they would be almost sleeping. The patients would wake up and would feel as though they had met with Asclepius and his snake and had been healed. I devoted a lot of my research paper to how we now understand our mind is so powerful.”
An answer of sorts
Although Miller may not have returned with a simple answer to her initial question about our democratic society today, she did come back with an ever greater appreciation of the philosophers and healers of ancient Greece. “I think that a big takeaway from my time there in the sense of that initial question … I would say that … the people that we studied had such a wealth of knowledge, almost a mystical magical essence to them,” Madison explains with characteristic enthusiasm. “Hippocrates was so… that man!” she laughs.
But then she gets serious: “I think what I’m trying to really get at is that their words were so strong back then and they still stand today. They have this timeless and remarkable effect on everyone who reads them. That is really moving to me.”