ATHENS – When NYU’s Summer in Athens program celebrated its 20th anniversary last week at its home in the Kolonaki district of the capital of Greece, the testaments of past and current participants made the special guests feel like they were invited to a joyous family celebration.
The six-week for-credit program literally makes Greek-Americans and non-Greeks fall head-over-heels for Greece, as was clear from the slide presentation of photos interspersed with passionate testimonials from participants each summer since 1998, and the greetings offered that evening by students and graduates.
It was also clear from everyone’s appreciation for the passion and dedication of the founder of Summer in Athens, Dr. Liana Theodoratou, Director of the A.S. Onassis Program in Hellenic studies of NYU, and her colleagues.
NYU Provost Katherine Fleming, Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization, praised Summer in Athens and spoke of the $15 million grant from the Onassis Foundation – the largest donation in NYU history at the time – which established the U.S.’s only Hellenic Studies program independent of departments of classics.
Fleming paid tribute to the late Congressman and past President of NYU John Brademas, who called its establishment, “the fulfillment of my dreams.”
The summer program helps students – of Greek descent or not – see “what it is like to be a Greek today and how it related to Greece’s past,” she said.
Athena Athanasiou, Professor of Anthropology at Panteion University in Athens, said participants are able to “reclaim Greekness” from prevailing stereotypes.
For six weeks, in addition to the classes that are presented, “Special emphasis is placed on visiting and exploring significant cultural and historical sites, not only in Athens but also in other parts of Greece. Field trips, cultural activities, and guest lecturers constitute an integral component of the program; students are expected to attend and actively participate in all of them,” according to the website.
Professor Eduardo Cadavas, who teaches literature and photography, said “We provide the students with a kind of lens through which they can begin to approach this wildly significant place.”
“I founded the program in 1998 thinking that NYU should have a program in Athens, which is the birthplace of Western Civilization and a place that everyone should visit,” Theodoratou says on a promotional video.
All students participating in the program are required to live in NYU-provided housing, and Theodoratou adds: “We live with them continuously for six weeks, almost to the point where we share our lives with each other.”
Past participants present at the celebration supplemented the testimony in the video with more stories of the impact the program had on their lives. Words like eye-opening and life-changing were heard often.
Alexandra Manousakis eventually moved to Greece and now runs her family’s winery in Crete. The enthusiasm of Malvina Kefalas, who experienced the program as both student and administrator, was infectious. She had the older people in the room wishing they had done something like that in their youth.
Joshua Tay, whose life growing up in Singapore, studying in New York and living in London was enriched by his time in Athens, declared the program taught him “what it means to be a citizen of the world, and our responsibility, ethnically, politically, and morally, to [Greece].”
Gene Jarret, NYU’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, was thrilled to have traveled to Greece to attend and congratulated everyone. Among the speakers was Aristides Baltas, who had served as both Minister of Culture and Minster of Education.
Vaila Trittas, Program Administrator in New York and for Summer in Athens, and Maria Lambraki, operations Administrator for NYU’s Global Research Institute in Athens, who assists with the summer program, were acknowledged by Theodoratou.
Earlier in the day students and staff visited the Presidential Mansion for a meeting the President of Greece Prokopis Pavlopoulos. The celebration closed with another kind of thrill, a concert by rising Greek singer Leon of Athens who had just returned from two tours in the U.S. and is preparing for his third.
NYU students Bobie Shand and Nicole Burton also performed, singing songs by Mikis Theodorakis accompanied by young guitarist George Hatzopoulos, and the evening concluded with a wonderful rooftop reception.