On one of the first days of summer break 2015, I sat with my face glued to the window of a small bus driving through the streets of Belgrade, Serbia, along with 12 other Clemson students. While my friends were off sun tanning on beaches at home (a mere 4,700 miles away), I was in southeastern Europe, experiencing what can only be described as culture shock.

Emily Clarke with hands raised in the middle of a meadow overlooking a mountain range with a rainbow overhead.

Emily Clarke celebrates the beautify of Etno Selo, a village in the southeastern European sovereign state of Montenegro.
Image Credit: provided

When we first entered Belgrade, it seemed like any other modern European city—tall buildings, busy streets, clothing and food stores all around. What I wasn’t prepared for, only a block away from these sleek glass-front stores, was the Ministry of Defense building—half still standing and functional with the other half blown to pieces from bombs dropped in the 1990s. For those of us on the trip, being taken back in history only required a five-minute drive.

Our trip was not your “typical” study abroad experience. Instead of going to class, we held meetings with high-level government officials and NGOs. Instead of staying in dorms, we stayed in one of the oldest, well-known hotels in Belgrade. Instead of having one city as our home base, we moved around four countries in a whirlwind trip. The experience was incredible.

Our first stop was Serbia. In our headquarters of Belgrade, we experienced Serbian city life for two weeks—visits with the U.S. ambassador, meetings with the Minister of Defense, discussions with human rights groups and Serbian students, days spent taking in the cultural heritage of the country at museums and nights at the opera.

From Serbia we traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina to learn more about the cultural divides we had been hearing about in our meetings. We visited Srebrenica, the site of mass genocide in the 1990s, and tried to learn about the effects of the fighting. We spent a day with children who had not been around for the horror but were still feeling the effects of the destruction.

After Bosnia and Herzegovina, we dedicated the remaining part of the trip to Montenegro and Croatia—two of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. In Montenegro, we went from whitewater rafting in the morning to camping out in the snow-topped mountains at night. We spent five days staying at a villa on the beach and taking boat rides to beautiful islands.

Three Clemson students, including Emily Clarke, and a professor outfitted in white water rafting gear.

Emily Clarke (far left) during a whitewater rafting trip in Montenegro.

Croatia shared many similarities to Montenegro. We were surrounded by clear, blue oceans, towering cliffs straight out of an episode of “Game of Thrones,” cascading waterfalls and running streams in famous national parks, and bustling cities filled with citizens enjoying the luxuries of newly entering the European Union.

One month sped by faster than I knew was possible. Before I could say “Хвала вам” (thank you in Serbian) to the countries that had given me so much, I was back on a plane to the USA. As we flew over the Atlantic Ocean, I couldn’t help but think of all I had learned, seen and experienced. The best thing about my time abroad was that the fun was in the learning. We had no classroom in the formal sense, so discussing foreign policy with ambassadors, hearing people who lived through the Yugoslavian wars tell their stories, walking around museums reading the countries’ histories was our classroom. Studying abroad in the Balkans enriched my time at Clemson in more ways than imaginable.

Clemson Study Abroad gave me the opportunity to interact with communities I never would have encountered, to see history up close and personal, and enhance my perspective on the importance of global participation.

Get started with your own Study Abroad journey by taking part in the 2017 Study Abroad Fair, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 1 in the Hendrix Student Center or visit Clemson.edu/studyabroad for more information.