The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: Encouragement to students of color

December 20th, 2011

Reflections on Race and Ethnicity

Dear Prospective Student,

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the Overseas Writers' Workshop, a two-week program that saw writers, poets, and translators convene to share their work and learn about local literary culture on the island of Corfu in Greece. Going to Corfu was an awe-inspiring experience for many reasons, but being a writer and graduate student of color, there were particular aspects of my time abroad that left a lasting impression on me. 

I think it is important for all young people to travel abroad; experiencing other cultures and modes of being is essential to becoming a well-rounded individual. For students of color, studying abroad is especially beneficial as it is an opportunity to see the way that dynamics of race, class, and ethnicity change depending on one's location. 

As an African American woman, meeting members of the African Diaspora in Greece was eye-opening. Many of the West African immigrants I met were first-generation transplants or seasonal workers, and as such their position within the larger Greek cultural fabric was a tenuous one. In a society where large-scale immigration is a newer phenomenon than it is in the United States, it was interesting to hear these immigrants' various opinions about life as a person of color in a European country.

In addition to interacting with members of the Diaspora, another important lesson I learned on Corfu was the importance of reaching out to students from across the university. As a student at the Writers' Workshop here in Iowa, it is seldom that I have meaningful contact with writers and scholars in other graduate disciplines. The Overseas Writers' Workshop necessitated the mingling of fiction writers, nonfiction writers, translators, and poets. There were many people on the Corfu trip who may write and work right down the street from me in Iowa City, but it was not until we arrived on the island that I made lasting connections with them.

On a personal level, one of the most impactful aspects of my visit to Corfu was the way that past civilizations have shaped the island's identity. Corfu is off of the western coast of mainland Greece, but it is also a mere six-hour ferry ride from Italian soil. Thus, it has been conquered and governed by many different regimes. One of our group excursions was to the village of old Perrithia, a mountain settlement built during the Byzantine era to prevent coastal raiding. Our group also went on a day trip to Saranda, Albania, and the nearby Butrint ruins, an area that was controlled at various time by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Venetians, and Ottomans. Seeing the imprints that these civilizations have left on the region gave me a greater appreciation for the ingenuity and resiliency of humankind in general.

On one of my final days on Corfu, I watched the championship game of the World Cup at a café on the top of a centuries-old Byzantine fort. It was a real-life moment of the present mingling with the past, and coupled with the feeling of world unity promoted by the games, it was one of the most memorable night of my trip.

I would like to thank the Diversity Ambassador Committee for providing generous funding for my trip, and I encourage all students of color who are interested in learning from the larger world we live in to apply to a study abroad program in the future.

Angela Flournoy