Growing up, Ileana Exaras felt caught between two cultures.
Originally raised in Greece, the junior moved to the United States when she 14. When she enrolled at Lehigh in the fall of her freshman year, she continued to feel lost — this time between her passion for academics and a love of music.
It wasn’t until her semester abroad in Vienna that Exaras said she could finally see herself as whole.
Exaras was recently awarded an honorable mention for the Global Citizen of the Year Award through the Institute for the International Education of Students Abroad. IES Abroad recognizes students who have studied abroad within the past year and have positively affected both their communities abroad and at home through their experiences.
IES Abroad provides access to over 125 study abroad and internship programs in more than 35 cities around the world. This year, the organization received 54 submissions from students across 40 different U.S. colleges for the Global Citizen of the Year Award. Exaras was one of seven finalists, and the winner was a sophomore from the University of Michigan.
For Exaras, her journey abroad came at a critical time. A strong student and musician, she said she had often struggled to find a balance between her two passions.
“I was at a point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my life,” Exaras said. “In the United States, careers define people’s lives. I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue an academic or music career, so I decided I needed time to explore myself in another place.”
She decided on both.
In Vienna, Exaras said she was finally able to truly combine her international relations career path with art. While studying the history and economic conflict of her home country Greece, Exaras applied her political knowledge toward musical compositions to communicate the material she was learning.
“I expressed political and social conflicts through art,” Exaras said. “I wanted to study both international relations and music.”
Exaras said her passion for exploring social conflict existed long before she boarded the plane to Vienna.
“I had published a poem on the school shooting threats at Lehigh and other Pennsylvania schools last year,” she said. “I really have a passion for both art and social conflict.”
It was that passion that helped Exaras’ application stand out among the other 54 students. Exaras completed a personal statement and provided several works of music she had composed during her time abroad.
For Abby Baric, the outreach coordinator of IES Abroad, Exaras’ extra submissions helped her application stand out.
During her time in Vienna, Exaras was enrolled in a class that examined the current state of her home nation’s economy. While learning more about Greece’s history and its recent financial crisis, Baric said Exaras was inspired to express the uncertainty and emotion the country was feeling through her music.
“She already had that connection to Greece, but this class sort of heightened the emotions that were going on for her,” Baric said.
Exaras explained in her personal statement that her time in the class and composing music helped her realize how much more connected to Greece she was than she had originally thought. Having been away from the country for so long, she was still passionate about its financial hardships and political challenges.
For her final project in another class, Exaras recorded a piece for piano and violin. Baric said the piece, which Exaras included in her application, was a “major factor” in helping Exaras earn her honorable mention.
Another element of Exaras’ personal statement that impressed Baric was the student’s ability to recognize how living in a country and being surrounded by the same issues every day can make you go numb to them.
“You hear it on the news, you see it every day and you sort of just accept the problems,” Baric said. “(Exaras) wants to use her music to challenge that and recognize the problems in a new light.”
For Exaras, exploring in a foreign country, learning a new language and composing her own music gave her a renowned sense of liberation and confidence.
“I started going out beyond the program I was in to start meeting new people,” Exaras said. “I would be asking people I had just met to grab coffee, and this opened me up to so many new ideas about culture.”
Study abroad adviser Jodeen Gemmel said while everyone is different, many students like Exaras gain a sense of confidence and a more global perspective when studying abroad.
“Many students self-reflect a lot more,” Gemmel said. “They realize that the world is a lot bigger than Lehigh. It is an opportunity to gain a different perspective on education.”
She said being able to communicate is essential, and having the opportunity to interact with the world in a global perspective opens students up to new work experiences.
“I am looking for the most fulfilling way through the arts to explore how the world works,” Exaras said.