Doug Welsh '14 studied in the Balkans, with Houghton College's Balkans Semester program.
What interested you in this particular program?
In the fall of my junior year 2012, I studied abroad in the Balkans. I knew I wanted to do a study abroad program, but I was not sure where I wanted to go. In the spring, various programs came to Wheaton to advertise. Then, I met Dr. Meic Pearse from Houghton College and I settled on a study abroad program in the Balkans. This was the first year for the program, and it turned out to be a great success. I was always interested in the Balkans region in particular because it is not widely covered in most history classes. Usually, it is mentioned in reference to wars since it is notoriously called the “powder keg of Europe”. From what I knew, I was interested in seeing how Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam shaped the region and how they have contributed to the various conflicts throughout the years. Another reason for choosing this program was because my grandmother was Croatian, so I wanted to know more about where I come from and how that has shaped who I am.
Explain a bit about the program.
The classes that I took while I was in the Balkans were a general history of the region, Catholic and Orthodox Theology and Art, and Literature of the Balkans. These classes were taught in our apartments, for we changed locations every four weeks or so. We also had numerous trips to visit other major cities near our home locations. The four main places we stayed were Krk, Croatia; Sarajevo, Bosnia; Skopje, Macedonia; and Zagreb, Croatia. We also got to travel through Serbia, stopping in Belgrade, the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, Venice, Budapest, and Vienna. A large part of our travels included church visits. Throughout the whole semester, we visited massive Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals, monasteries, and some mosques in Bosnia and Macedonia. It was interesting to learn about how people in the region define themselves and how that has changed throughout the years. From my studies, I learned about the deeply rooted rivalry between Western and Eastern Christendom which can be traced back to the early church schism.
What were some highlights for you?
Some of the highlights include swimming in the clear blue Adriatic Sea along the rocky coast of Croatia, drinking Turkish coffee at a Turkish Han in Sarajevo, getting connected with the evangelical community in Skopje, Macedonia, attending a Jazz Festival in Skopje, and exploring the cities of Belgrade and Zagreb.
How was studying abroad different than if you had studied on campus?
It was fascinating to be studying and living in a place that has experienced strife that seems incredible to the outsider. While studying and traveling in Orthodox countries such as Macedonia and Serbia, I learned about a different perspective of Christianity that is not generally looked at in the West. In studying Orthodox theology, I was able to look more at the early church fathers and what they believe compared to what most Western Christians now believe. From my history class, I learned more about the factors that went into the break-up of Yugoslavia and started to make sense of why the bloodshed happened. Overall, I was introduced to various new cultures deeply rooted in tradition and the past. I was exposed to the fact that most of the world does not share the same opinions on human rights, life, and freedom which have become rooted in American culture. Life looks completely different to those in the Balkans than to us in America. Before we can understand what has really happened in the region, we must adopt the perspective of someone living in the Balkans.
Do you have any regrets?
One regret that I do have about my experience is the fact that I was never able to learn the languages well enough. While we did have some language classes, they were only sufficient to understand the bare minimum of how to get around.
Do you have any tips for someone considering a study abroad experience?
I encourage other students to do this program or others like it in which they experience the East. In traveling in Eastern Europe or other Eastern countries, they will be exposed to philosophies, cultures, and values that are unappreciated in the West and overlooked. The differences in Eastern European culture will definitely be noticed and felt when traveling from the comfortable West.