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Did you know Athens is home to “Canada House”?

Photo of: greek and canadian flags

©iStock.com | Ruskpp

University of Toronto students from the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies recently took their studies beyond the classroom and 2,500 years into the past to the “cradle of Western civilization.” They visited Athens, Greece, home to the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the ruins of Agora. Among the highlights, though, was a trip to the Vorres Museum, which helped to put the entirety of Greek history and culture into context — everything from ancient artifacts to contemporary works that reflect present-day Greek culture.

The museum was founded in 1983 by the late Ian Andrew Vorres, a Greek-Canadian and U of T alumnus and recipient of the Order of Canada. During his lifetime, Vorres worked to build and maintain cultural bridges between Greece and Canada, an effort that saw the museum officially recognized in 2010 as “Canada House” by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean and Canadian Ambassador to Athens Robert Peck.

“Any opportunity for Canada and Greece to broaden and deepen partnerships is important.” Peck said, “Greece has played a strong part in shaping Western civilization over thousands of years, and it’s essential to understand this impact since we draw from the ancient Greeks in so many of our disciplines.”

“The museum has strong ties to Canada, and Mr. Vorres also wished to maintain the strong bonds between the U of T and the Vorres Museum. Members of the large U of T family are always welcome to visit us,” said museum spokesperson Helen Korakianiti. “A visit to the museum serves as a unique crash course for students on the contemporary art scene in Greece, while it also offers them a glimpse into the country’s rich history and folk tradition.”

The trip to Greece comes as U of T sees growing student interest in Hellenic culture and history, the outcome of dedicated efforts from U of T’s Greek Students’ Association and the Hellenic Heritage Foundation (HHF). As a result of the support from both organizations, last year the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs began offering Hellenic studies courses devoted to the history, politics, language and culture of Greece. The HHF made an initial donation of $180,000, and through the launch of its Apollo Project fundraising campaign, its eventual goal is a $2 million endowment which will fund a program in perpetuity.

In addition to the courses they take on campus, students also have the option to experience Greece outside of the classroom through travel funded in part by the HHF gift, a crucial component to developing a well-rounded understanding of issues facing the country. “My time in Greece afforded me the opportunity to better understand the assumptions which are often built into analyses of the country,” said Rachel Trode, a first-year MA student in European, Russian and Eurasian studies. “This type of trip allows you to cut through the overwhelming and often flat rhetoric that surrounds certain issues. In the case of the Greek financial crisis, it’s possible to ask more critical questions and see how things truly play out on the ground.”

For Professor Robert Austin, the Hellenic Studies Program represents an avenue for growth, inside and outside of the classroom. “Above and beyond the teaching of Modern Greek, we’re making sure that U of T’s Hellenic Studies Program offers something different from other programs of its kind in Canada, and our strength will be in providing international opportunities.” For example, in the 2015-2016 academic year, a new course is being introduced that will take place in Greece, allowing students to learn in the country. “In addition to what they learn in the classroom, students must get into the field,” Austin said. “Whether that’s research, a student exchange or a summer abroad, it’s the kind of experience that should be essential to any undergraduate degree.”

During these trips, students obtain first-hand knowledge of Greece and its complexities, a task that has become increasingly important given the country’s critical position in determining social and economic policy, both in the European Union and globally.

“This experience has helped me to develop a better understanding of Greece’s present-day situation by allowing me to hear different opinions than those we typically hear in Canada,” said Laurie Drake, a PhD candidate whose research focuses on 20th-century European history. “Speaking with people who have lived through the crisis and who have a personal stake in its outcome certainly brings new perspectives and opinions to light.”

As Canada’s Ambassador to Greece, Robert Peck has long been an outspoken supporter of the Hellenic Studies initiative. “Greece is going through a very difficult time — that’s something we see in news headlines every day. The country itself is a strategically sensitive and important region, since it acts as a pole of stability for that part of the world,” Peck said, also noting the crucial role that an in-depth education plays in helping future leaders gain insight into Greece and its culture, “We need to embrace what the country means to our past and to our culture, but it’s also important to develop an understanding of the Greece that we see today.”