ATHENS – “It’s a beautiful day in a beautiful country” said Alexis Phylactopoulos, President of College Year in Athens, telling The National Herald he was delighted that students from the United States had arrived and began their classes and activities despite the Coronavirus pandemic. “The nine students are very brave, highly motivated individuals from very good colleges.”
When College Year in Athens (CYA) was established in 1962 it was the first study-abroad program in Greece for English–speaking undergraduates, and in 2020 the school continues to be a valuable cultural bridge between importance allies and a gateway to Greece for non-Greek and Greek-American students alike.
Phylactopoulos honed his bridge building skills during his years with the Greek Foreign Ministry, which included service at its embassy in Washington, DC. He followed a distinguished diplomatic career by leading the not-for-profit educational institution that offers semester, academic year, and summer study abroad programs in Greece, even during a pandemic.
“The new students came to a highly organized and well-prepared institution from the of view of the health protocols … which are followed very strictly. There is social distancing in classes, and we use huge buses for the nine students, who live in single occupancy bedrooms. They are housed within walking distance of the CYA Academic Center in student apartments located in the Pangrati neighborhood of central Athens.
The CYA Academic Center is located next to Athens' famed Kalimarmaro marble stadium and houses classrooms, the library, the student lounge and cafeteria, and computer facilities.
During orientation, “the students were very happy to go up to our rooftop and see the magnificent view we have of the Acropolis and the glorious stadium – the site of the first modern Olympics. They were absolutely awed,” Phylactopoulos said.
CYA’s dedicated staff helped facilitate what many of the students will see as the trip of a lifetime. It they are coming for more than 90 days, they need a student visa, but for less than 90 days, all they need is a letter from their nearest Greek Consulate that is presented to airlines and Greek authorities.
“The students were happy as can be to come. It’s also a tribute to those colleges and universities that will give academic credit to them.” And classes with so few people are more like to tutorials – a bonus for the students.
An educational field trip to Delphi and Meteora awaited them for their first weekend. On their way to Meteora they stopped at Thermopylae, where they were told about the historic battle whose 2500th anniversary, along with that of the battle of Salamis, is celebrated this year.
“They were exposed to Ancient Greece on the first day, and the next day to Byzantium and Orthodox monasticism, where they also witnessed the fantastic geological phenomenon of Meteora.”
The students returned to beautiful weather in Athens for their second week of classes. “In addition to the high academic quality with the stellar faculty we have here, the fact they could come to Greece, which is a safe country, politically and which has comparatively low numbers of cases of COVID-19, is something all parents should think about when they decide with their children what to do in the next year or so.”
One of the nine students is a Greek-American, the usual ratio. Phylactopoulos noted “it’s unfortunate because more Greek Americans should have discovered CYA and what a benefit it is for their children.” On the other hand, the appreciation of non-Greeks of the value of experiencing a liberal arts education in Greece is impressive. Experience has taught him that “getting to know another country, another country at that age is a great benefit to carry through one’s life.”
Turning again to the Diaspora, Phylactopoulos said, “most Greek-Americans have this yearning for their children to learn the language. One good way is to send children to CYA where they receive instruction in Greek at all levels and the contact with the language is boosted. They learn the culture and we make sure they are introduced to Greek society through various activities in the city and field trips so they also see the countryside. It’s a marvelous way for them to discover their roots, and it’s a great emotional experience to meet their relatives, their uncles and cousins and others.”
As an educator, he urges parents and students to add a bigger doses of humanities to the education experience. “Being exposed to philosophy, history, literature, and art helps people become critical thinkers and also to be able to live a happier life.” He also acknowledges that students want to know that whatever they are learning is also leading them to the job market. “A liberal arts education teaches how to be good presenters, how to report and sell things. These skills: presenting, analyzing, and being able to speak languages and deal with other nationalities and cultures is what employers want.”
CYA also provides value via associations with renowned research institutions like the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, the British School of Archaeology, ELIAMEP and IOBE, the respected foreign policy and economics think tank, respectively. Students get internships there and in the private sector, and they have access to the schools’ libraries.
Phylactopoulos is very proud that CYA also promotes volunteer work and community service. “Our nine new students will spend a day cleaning beaches as part of their environmental classes.”
The 10,000 alumni are major asset of the school – and of Greece. “They become spiritual friends of Greece because of the fact that they studied here. When you study in another country at such sensitive ages you become a friend of that country for life. Proof of this is that many of our alumni are pursuing careers in matters related to Hellenism – close to 300 active professors in the U.S. received their baptism in Hellenism at CYA.”
This fall, CYA initiated its brand new Gap Year Program with the invitation: “Escape the virtual, go real in Greece.” It provides a special experience to students who choose to place a year between high school and college.
Visit cyathens.org, cyablog.net, and facebook.com/cyathens.