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Creating a Home for Princeton Scholars in Athens

Students visit Delphi, the ancient sanctuary located along the slope of Mount Parnassus in the south of mainland Greece. It is also the site of the fourth century B.C. Temple of Apollo, once home to a legendary oracle.

By Natalie Hammer Noblitt

A vital new Princeton hub for learning is taking shape in the historic city of Athens. The Princeton University Athens Center opened this fall in a fully renovated 1930s-era townhouse in a centrally located neighborhood of the capital of Greece. Conceived and led by Princeton University’s Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, the center will feature conference facilities, seminar rooms, offices, study space and an informal common area — along with a terrace offering a view of the Parthenon in the distance.

Located in a diverse and lively neighborhood, the center will provide an efficient, easily accessible and welcoming operating base to scholars and students, close to libraries, museums and archaeological sites in the historic downtown of Athens.

“Our new home in Athens is the culmination of three years of planning,” says Dimitri Gondicas ’78, founding director of the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies. “It will provide a fully equipped home for many of our current programs in Greece, including global seminars, break study trips, faculty research groups and partnerships with Greek institutions.”

“It is one thing to read about or see photos of the Theatre of Dionysos on the south slope of the Acropolis,” says Michael Cadden, chair of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. “It is another thing to stand at the very place where every play we read for our course was once performed.”

Sahand Keshavarz Rahbar ’17 says the importance of a permanent center in Athens became apparent during his visit to Greece two years ago, when his experience of the city infused his studies with unexpected clarity. “As a historian, I am often struck by the idea of the ineffable — those sights and sounds that escape description,” he says. “Study abroad provides students with the opportunity to capture those senses, to more fully envision the particulars that eluded their understanding when reading a hefty textbook or journal article. My trip allowed me to become a part of history, and to gain an intimacy with past events that I could never achieve in a classroom thousands of miles away.”

A Vision for Athens Takes Shape

“An academic home in Greece embodies some of the key goals of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund, established in 1979,” Gondicas says. “Creating the Princeton Athens Center was consistent with the vision of our benefactor, Stanley J. Seeger ‘52, whose legendary generosity made it possible for Princeton to be a world leader in Hellenic studies. Every year, we support over 100 Princetonians for study and research in Greece.”

The Seeger Center’s formal proposal for the center in Athens was approved by the Academic Planning Group in April 2016. “Incremental, measured growth over the past three decades made this expansion possible,” Gondicas says. The center inauguration was held during fall break this year, and operations will begin with a soft start in the spring and summer of 2017. Full operation is expected by the 2017-18 academic year.

“The center has been designed to encourage and facilitate informal and formal interactions among its many users, and to welcome exchanges with Greek and other students, scholars, writers, artists and journalists based in Athens,” Gondicas adds.

Christian Wildberg, a professor of classics and director of the Program in Hellenic Studies, taught a PIIRS Global Seminar in Athens last summer and says he was astonished at how much students can accomplish in Greece in just six weeks. “The most amazing thing was the final papers that my students submitted a few weeks after returning from Athens,” Wildberg says. “Topics ranged from mythology and pre-Socratic philosophy and ended with discussions of the rise of Christianity. Reading those papers in all their fascinating diversity was almost as much of a tour de force as the seminar itself.”

Interdisciplinary Learning

Anastasia Vrachnos ’91, vice provost for international affairs and operations, described the center as an example of “internationalizing the Princeton way.” “We are making an institutional investment that builds on the research interests of our faculty and enhances our teaching,” she says. “It is Princeton’s first center for scholarship and learning abroad, hosting programs throughout the year. In addition to supporting a robust slate of scholarly activities, the center enhances the University’s international profile, emphasizes our increasingly global outlook, and showcases areas of excellence for Princeton scholarship.”

“Our center in Athens will be interdisciplinary, in the broadest sense,” Gondicas says. “We even have strong interest on the part of colleagues in the natural sciences and engineering to be part of this new venture, so they can engage actively with their counterparts and students in Greece.”

Kathleen Crown, executive director of the Council of the Humanities, says that the center is an important addition to academic options at Princeton. “Students are increasingly seeking interdisciplinary approaches to their studies. The center will provide support for faculty who are designing innovative programs and will serve as a nexus for scholarly and artistic collaborations across the disciplines.”