Literature, Travel, and the Good Society: Lessons From a Semester Abroad

St. Salvatore’s Hall at the University of St Andrews, where SaraGrace Stefan studied abroad this year.

I have always viewed the world from behind the pages of a book. Since I learned to read, books have been the lens through which I saw and learned to understand people and places beyond myself. I was a girl growing up in a seaside town in New Jersey, but as I read I learned of explorers, artists, and scientists, who, despite their geographical or chronological distance, somehow did not feel all that different from myself. When I reached college, I chose to study English literature and attend the Templeton Honors College because for all my life, I had utilized and truly loved the way that the written word could create and convey worlds beyond my own. I could not imagine a better education than one focused on books. Once again, the written word acted as a gateway through which countless teachers and voices were available to me.

As the years passed my eyes grew twitchy from overuse and my pens wore a groove into my fingers but my love for the written word did not subside. In fact, that love grew as my literary scope stretched to contain epics, and ethics, and philosophy. Be it Homer or Zadie Smith or Henrik Ibsen, there was something so honest and universal and so human about stories being shared. But around the end of my sophomore year, I hit an academic wall. I loved everything I was learning, but my newfound interest in ethics as well as human rights and politics seemed to propel me into a state of unease. What was I doing? Reading books? Reading books about reading books? What could that really do? How would that help people? Suddenly the passion of my life felt achingly inadequate.

Fast forward to the spring semester of my junior year, when I traveled to Scotland to study abroad at the University of St. Andrews. Given the extremely different credit system in Scotland, I took one English course completely focused on the American poet T.S. Eliot, and an International Relations course completely focused on refugees. This more concentrated curriculum necessitated even more reading (something I had honestly thought impossible after my previous English Literature/Templeton education), and I found myself spending the majority of my time poring over Eliot’s manuscripts, or analyzing political conventions that attempted to establish and defend the rights of refugees. Once again, I felt a sickly sense of futility as I devoted half of my time to trying to decode a single poet, and then the other half trying to grapple with groups of people that most of human society rejects with little to no empathy or understanding.

SaraGrace outside of the Temple of Athena in Athens.

As I read about individuals struggling to provide for their families, or women who sought safety only to fall prey to violence within the walls of refugee camps, I grew angry. I was angry with academia, angry with T.S. Eliot for writing poetry about cats and mermaids and breasts when there was so much suffering and violence that went uncorrected. My patient, loving roommate listened to innumerous rants as I was driven to grief over the plight of so many people I did not know how to help. This grief only intensified as I was forced to abandon it in order to discuss poetic meter or if Eliot’s poetry could be considered a response to the World Wars. That in and of itself was my issue—poetry, and literature as a whole, began to feel like one big, inconsequential and ineffective response, and it broke my heart.

Fortunately for my mental and emotional health (and my roommate’s as well), spring break arrived and we were fortunate enough to be able to travel to Greece, Italy, and Spain. As I left the St. Andrews library behind for more exotic and adventurous destinations, I felt something rekindling within me. I saw the Acropolis and the “Birth of Venus” and Gaudi’s Park, and I saw Syrian refugees in Athens, and I wanted to write about it all. It was as if all the stories I clung to as a child were becoming real around me. As we sat through flights and train rides I read novels and I wrote down poem after poem and it felt like I was reuniting with something that I thought had been lost.

I felt the excitement I had felt as a little girl in New Jersey, leaving the library with a stack of books, marveling at all of the stories that were just waiting for me. It was as if in all my years of keeping my nose in a book and my pen in my hand, I had forgotten to look up and out at the world around me. The very things that I loved about literature—the exotic and intelligent characters and the strange and exciting places—were waiting for me both on the page and at my feet.

It was the universality of literature that had captured my heart; the realization that there was so much that was unknown and unfamiliar but still all human. And it was that universality that recaptured my heart during this semester abroad. As I traveled and met people from all over the world, and saw things I had only ever read about, like castles and jungles and nomads, it compelled me to write, to take what I had seen and translate it onto the page. It was this impulse that helped me realize that literature is beautiful and powerful because it is, after all, a lens; it simply reflects the world back in a new light. I certainly love it for what it was, but more importantly for what it can do. It can bring the voice and the story of a refugee from a dusty Athenian street to a cool Scottish pub to a Pennsylvanian college. It took my traveling across the world and back again to realize that the beauty of literature is in the way it takes the foreign and puts it in front of your eyes so you can look it in the face; the written word is truly a vehicle for better understanding the world around us, and then sharing this understanding with others. Literature is the process of taking life and turning it to verse, so we can all appreciate its light.


SaraGrace Stefan (’18) is a Templeton scholar who is majoring in English Literature with minors in Creative Writing and Political Science. Her interests include poetry, marine science, and human rights advocacy. She is spending her summer lifeguarding on the Jersey Shore, and reading as much as possible. She hopes to pursue a career in editing, publishing, and human rights policy.

Comments

  1. Katelyn VanderVeen

    My name is Katey and I graduated with the THC cohort of 2014. I just want to say thank you for this beautiful post. I have struggled with similar feelings. Yet I didn’t want to let go of one or both loves of mine – thoughtful, poignant writing and living a life of advocacy for those who have little or no voice in the world. You put everything I feel and have struggled to come to realize over the years into graceful and meaningful script. Thank you.

    Reply

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