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Eva Varellas Kanellis: College Counselor Who Changes Lives

 

By Barbara Harrison

Plaudits and honors to Eva Varellas Kanellis, who retired in June after over 30 years of passionate commitment as founding director of U.S. College Counseling and Special Programs at Anatolia College, Thessaloniki.

Earlier in the year, she was awarded the prestigious “Counselors That Change Lives” Award presented by Colleges That Change Lives, Inc. The citation states “Eva [Kanellis] has probably done more to increase the visibility of students and schools in Greece than anyone else. There is no doubt that she is a counselor who changes lives.”

Under her guidance, hundreds of Anatolia students have matriculated in colleges and universities in every region of the United States. “Our students are well prepared for academic success in an American setting,” she says, “and they are winning substantial placements and scholarships.”

Driven by her desire to find the right match for each student, she has met with astounding success and has become a de facto “ambassador-at-large” for the college, city, and country for which she has endless affection.

She counsels students at a crucial juncture in their lives in a position that requires a multiplicity of skills. She is alternately an educator, administrator, psychologist, mentor, writer, speaker, fund-raiser, traveler and inexhaustible advocate.

One of her most striking qualities is her ability to listen thoughtfully and perceptively. She is never indifferent, and in making connections, she dares to transcend boundaries of age, race, ethnicity, class, profession, and gender. To “only connect” is her call to the world.

An advocate for change, Eva Kanellis founded several pathfinding programs, including the exemplary “Anatolia Volunteer Corps,” and “Anatolians at Work,” an internship program that introduces students to successful professionals eager to introduce their occupations.

As a part of her international summer study program, students have traveled to China to study the Chinese language at Hong Kong’s Summer School of Language and Culture and to Washington, DC to attend a National Student Leadership Conference at Georgetown University.

She created Rainbow Discovery Camp, Anatolia’s first Greek-English bilingual language camp, for younger students. “My goal,” she said, “is to offer young children a unique life experience in which they’ll have fun, be inspired, become more creative, and come to know and love the environment.”

She herself maintains an infectious sense of wonder. To identify wildflowers found nowhere else in the world, she climbed Mt. Olympus, Greece’s highest mountain, carrying Arne Strid’s oversized 400 page masterwork, Wild Flowers of Mount Olympus, published by the Goulandris Natural History Museum. She has trekked on three continents and run the Thessaloniki half-marathon.

Her reach is global. She was instrumental in establishing the first intergenerational program for Elder Hostel, now known as Road Scholar in which she paired grandparents and grandchildren. Her initiatives reflect her affection for people of every age and from every walk of life – and the history, literature and landscape of her beloved Greece.

Recently on a tour of the excavated ancient site of Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle in Chalkidiki, she became visibly moved, recounting the philosopher’s youth and the journey that perhaps the greatest of all philosophers most likely made by sea to Athens.

She loves nothing better than discussing in spirited colloquy questions raised by philosophers, poets, and playwrights. – themes of war and peace, anger and reconciliation, heroism and heroic possibilities. Can virtue be taught? Do those who know the good, choose the good?– questions as vital today as in antiquity.

Eva serves on the honorary board of The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools, a professional program for teachers that takes as its theme the Socratic call to “the examined life” – a concept that she embraces wholeheartedly as she inspires students to go one step further, one step higher in their thinking and in their lives. She’s always generating new ideas and possibilities and rousing students to think a little bit harder, a little bit wiser.

In her work, she has blazed new directions in establishing programs that promote the kind of critical and creative thinking necessary to live in a complex, heterogeneous, and humane global community.

Recently with her husband Panos Kanellis, president of the American Farm School and Perrotis College, she toured California State University/Fresno and met many members of the Greek community. The purpose of the visit was to firm up a partnership with CSU/Fresno for an exchange of students and faculty focused on agriculture.

Her home on the Farm School campus is a folk art museum reflecting her world perspective. In one corner an old loom, in others early wooden school desks, antique wooden trunks, African masks, original expressionist paintings. Traditional Greek folk costumes that she herself has worn adorn the walls, and beautifully textured near Eastern killims are used as both rugs and decorative wall hangings.

Born in Los Angeles, Eva Kanellis’ father was a Greek-American and her mother Irish and Chocktaw. She is fluent in both Greek and English, and holds an undergraduate degree in sociology and English from Wake Forest University, and graduate degrees in social work and urban development. An enlightened educator, Eva Kanellis started the first adult education program in Greece headquartered at the American College of Thessaloniki, where she taught sociology.

Prior to her move to Greece, she worked at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and headed an International Student Activity Center in Houston, Texas, and a half-way house for young newly released prisoners. She also had a brief stint at Amnesty International.

As a young person, active in the civil rights movement, she was part of a consciousness raising program at the University of Tennessee that brought black and white students together in equal numbers to share an intense learning experience.

In explaining her world view, she points to The Butler, the film that New Yorker critic Richard Brody called “a song of workingman’s grandeur,” based on the real-life story of Ernest Allen, the White House butler who served several U.S. presidents. Before retiring, she hosted a dinner to celebrate the contributions of Anatolia employees, standard-bearers of their profession: the painters, gardeners, plumbers, housekeepers, and carpenters. Her world view is inclusive.

Her friends remind her from time to time to stop trying to save the world, but Eva Kanellis pays no heed, and the word “retirement” in the traditional sense will have no impact on her chosen role as a “counselor who changes lives.” Her love of people, natural inclination toward friendship, and inexhaustible desire to make a difference course through her veins.

Eva’s commitment is to bring the world forward – in the rabbinic sense “tikkun olam” meaning “to repair or heal the world” – and she will continue her quest in upcoming years.

Greek-American novelist Gregory Maguire writes, “Eva is a bespangled force of nature, a limited-edition, upright, ambulatory earthquake of energy, ambition, and empathy.”

Despite the devastating impact of the economic crisis on institutions of higher learning in small embattled Greece, Eva Kanellis’ generosity of spirit and her kefi – joy of life – buoys her ever-expanding circle of students, colleagues, and friends.

At the American Farm School, Eva prizes a newly constructed yellow-brick road leading to the just opened preschool and elementary school. It’s the magical pathway that she like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, will follow as she continues to change lives.

 

Barbara Harrison, PhD, is Director of The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools.

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