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'This land and this people and this history': Balkans trip gives faculty, students, opportunities to learn from one another

Somewhere beneath the streets of Sarajevo, in a tunnel that 25 years ago shielded people caught in the crossfire of one of the largest sieges in human history, Creighton University students, alumni and faculty on this summer’s two-week immersion trip to the Balkans region of southeastern Europe shared a moment that crystallized the entire experience.

The same thing happened at dinners, at border crossings, standing in churches, synagogues and mosques, walking the grounds of a concentration camp, riding hairpin turns through mountains, marveling at the landscape.

“I think we were all taken with this land and this people and this history,” said Rebecca Murray, PhD, associate professor of cultural and social studies and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It was an opportunity for all of us, as students, as academics, to be vulnerable and to be at the juncture of sometimes being scared, but always being together and learning from experiences and one another.”

Getting to that feeling was one of the main thrusts behind the Balkans trip, organized by theology professor Nicolae Roddy under the aegis of the Creighton Global Initiative.

In addition to showing the Creighton contingent the Balkans as a crucial human crossroads, a mosaic of humanity, a polyvalence of human voices and a culture of cultures, Roddy said he was hoping to engage the trip’s participants — historians, theologians, social scientists, along with a student and an alumnus — in a whirlwind immersion, exposing them to a land often synonymous with conflict, but also with diversity.

The voyage began with a symposium at the University of Bucharest, where Creighton participants learned from scholars across the Balkans about the region’s history, culture, art, language and the political scene. From there, the voyagers fanned out for their own explorations of what they’d heard in the talks.

“For lunch the first day, I took everyone to my favorite restaurant in Bucharest,” Roddy said. “And just with one-half of one day of the symposium, you already had 20 people arrayed around the table, talking, engaged, inspired. It set a great tone for what was to come.”

And what was to come was an awakening into the Balkans that included realizations and reflections on such seemingly disparate encounters like a chapel built from human skulls in Niš, Serbia, or the Sarajevo neighborhood sporting a mosque, a synagogue, and Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches, or the sudden feast presented to the weary American travelers by a group of Montenegrins who had just celebrated a wedding.

“It was something beautiful at just about every turn,” Murray said. “You saw this region of contrast and yet with so many commonalities. That was one of the best experiences, overall: to look at a place that is so multilayered through the perspectives of the people I traveled with, and with the people we encountered in the countries we visited. It made the trip so fulfilling.”

Mariya Nikseresht, a senior international relations and sociology major from Glenwood, Iowa, was the lone student on the trip, but she said she hopes the experience will be offered again for future Creighton students.

“From the time I was in sixth grade and I had a teacher explain to us the war that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, I’ve been interested in the region,” Nikseresht said. “Outside the usual London, Paris trips you can take, this one was different. The culture was dynamic, and it was a chance to go with a group of academics that I knew I’d learn from.”

Nikseresht said since her return from the trip in July, she’s heard from many fellow Creighton students who were interested but remained unsure of the stability of the region.

“I think that’s something we still have stuck in our heads — that the Balkans are still in that conflict,” she said. “But the situation there is one of diversity and community. People are still interested in preserving their own culture, but they also recognize the ways that those cultures exist together. For me, that was a central lesson from the trip.”

Out of the Balkans experience, Roddy is creating a documentary to showcase the Creighton travelers’ experience and highlight the trip for future voyagers who might be interested in the Balkans.

“When I lead a group, I’m always watching expressions, monitoring reactions,” he said. “With this group, it was especially fun to see the expressions, and not just on faces, but in their comments to one another. Everyone was so open and available to the experience, and that’s something I think life in the Balkans shows us: what it is to be human and to be open. We saw the extremes of human cruelty there 25 years ago. Today, we are witnessing something else. On the trip, we saw the heights of human kindness, of awareness and remembrance.”

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