On assignment from her IES Abroad Vienna – Music Program professors, Ileana composed music and conducted research. While these projects started as coursework, they became the inspiration for a major life goal: to create music for a cause.
We followed up with the Global Citizen of the Year awardee a year later to hear how she continues to share music reflective of her global citizenship.
IES Abroad: The theme of the 2018 Global Citizen of the Year application is all about finding your place in the world. How did studying abroad help you find yours?
Ileana Exaras (IE): I spent my childhood and teenage years in Greece before moving to America for high school. I remember the first time someone in Vienna asked me where I'm from, I had no idea what to say. Greece or America? Until this day, I still don't know how to answer that question. It was while studying abroad in Vienna, when, for the first time ,I didn't know which country I was representing. I realized that, actually, I have no place in the world. This can be both a blessing and a curse. I belong nowhere; therefore, I belong everywhere. I have the emotional readiness to lead a nomadic or fixed lifestyle, and the liberty to choose between the two.
IES Abroad: Was making a difference something that you set out to do during your time abroad? Or did it unfold while you were there?
IE: I went abroad to rediscover myself in a foreign country. I did not set out to make a difference, and I do not know if I made a significant difference. When we are our honest selves, and express our true opinions, however, we inevitably make a difference because we introduce others to new perspectives that they can take into consideration. I hope that whoever listened to my composition, Silent Anthem, and read my poem thought about it afterwards, perhaps with a change of heart. On a societal level, however, nothing has changed, understandably, because I do not have Beyoncé’s influential power (yet), but I will remain optimistic, patient, and realistic.
IES Abroad: A profound point you made in your Global Citizen of the Year personal statement was, “What travelling does is that it helps you realize that every country believes in a truth that might be different from your own, and the acceptance of this ‘truth’ requires great open mindedness.” Why do you think it is important to keep an open mind while studying abroad?
IE: I define open mindedness as our capacity to understand before we judge. Before we judge an opinion, behavior, or phenomenon different from or even insulting to our own, we must first make an effort to understand why it has emerged. How has the structural environment shaped the culture and norms? Aim for answers, not solutions. The moment we think we have found a solution, we have fallen into the trap of thinking we are morally superior to our foreign hosts. Open mindedness is understanding that 'right' and 'wrong' is for each society to define for itself. It is responding with "why do you think that way?" as opposed to "you are so closed minded". Open mindedness begins with curiosity and results in bonding, respect, and learning. If you want change, whatever that may mean for you, open mindedness is certainly a prerequisite.
IES Abroad: What did the experience of being a U.S. citizen abroad teach you about yourself and your home country?
IE: International experiences can vary indefinitely. Studying abroad with IES Abroad introduced me not just to Viennese culture, but also to the different cultures and mentalities of the United States, since everyone in my program was American. Because I was in a foreign environment, both within and without the program, I ceased to define myself by the traditions of just one society, and began to question and explore what really gives me purpose. I will never stop exploring.
IES Abroad: During your time studying abroad in Vienna, music was your medium to channel your feelings about current social issues. How can music be an avenue for social change?
IE: Music can awaken emotions we never thought we had the capacity to feel. It can make us feel differently about something, and compel us to act upon new ideas or realizations. Respect is music's most powerful tool when it comes to social change. It does not impose its values onto anyone. It just makes itself available for whenever one wants to listen. One may disagree with the symbolism of a particular piece, but ultimately, an addicting song will win over any opinion.
IES Abroad: In your own words, why should future study abroad students care about the world?
IE: To care about someone or something is not a rational choice, it’s an emotional impulse. I cannot demand that someone care about the world, but what I can do is suggest the following: when abroad, expose yourself to the culture as much as you can, and take advantage of every opportunity. For the first two weeks, stay out of the house, talk to strangers (use discretion), and ask questions. Do things that make your heart beat faster. Eventually, you will have fun. If the society is struggling, take every chance you can to help and acquaint yourself with what your neighbors are experiencing. In this way, a bond with the place or the people will be created, which will then ignite this beautiful human instinct of caring.
IES Abroad: What’s next for you?
IE: I recently completed my bachelor's degree, and am currently on an international scholarship program in Armenia. After that, only time can tell where the fire in my heart will take me.
Where will you find your place in the world? Read about 6 Ways to Discover Your Global Citizenship While Studying Abroad.