All Challenges Are Opportunities
By Constantine S. Sirigos
College Year in Athens (CYA) was established in 1962 as the first study-abroad program in Greece for English–speaking undergraduates and through the years it has become a valuable cultural bridge between important allies and a gateway to Greece for non-Greek and Greek-American students alike.
Alexis Phylactopoulos, President of College Year in Athens, following a distinguished diplomatic career which included service at the Greek embassy in Washington, DC, has been leading the non-profit educational institution that offers outstanding academic programs (semester, year, winter and summer), Virtual Internships, and Gap programs in Greece.
Alexis Phylactopoulos, president of College Year in Athens.
When The National Herald asked him about the challenges of the past year-and-a-half during the pandemic he said, “CYA has indeed gone through the worst crisis in its 60-year history but it has emerged strong with proven resilience.”
He noted with justified pride that, “CYA was one of the very few study abroad institutions worldwide that remained operative this past year. Flexibility and improvisation have become by necessity an art form at CYA since continually shifting conditions require us to adjust and readjust our academic schedules. Syllabi, course schedules, travel itineraries and bookings had to be redesigned several times.”
Phylactopoulos explained that CYA managed to provide two semesters of solid study (Fall 2020 & Spring 2021) while overcoming the obstacles that COVID presented in terms of scheduling and programming.
“In the fall 2020 semester, all field study was rescheduled and front-loaded in expectation of a lockdown which did come, and in the second semester all field study was pushed to the end of the academic year, which was extended by one week in expectation of the end of the lockdown,” he said.
CYA has an urban campus with all facilities (academic & housing) located in the center of the city of 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.
Earlier this summer Phylactopoulos said, “we are currently focusing on preparations for the in-person fall semester, when we expect a cohort of 91 students, as well as 49 students on two semester-long faculty-led programs, while preparing for fast adjustment to online courses, if needed.”
He emphasized that, “CYA's main concern has always been the safety and welfare of our students and our community. CYA is prepared for a COVID-19 safe environment and we are ready to adjust our study travel schedule to ensure a safe and enriching field study experience.”
And the beloved institution continues to attract new generations because its programs remain relevant and interesting in form and content.
“Wildfires have been raging all over the Mediterranean this summer and CYA is planning to introduce a focus on environmental issues during these trips, with the participation of environmentalists and urban planning experts.”
CYA has also opened up to include offerings to a more diverse crowd (in terms of age, level of studies, interests) by introducing the Gap Year Programs and Summer Courses to high school graduates, the Virtual Internships to students who can't travel, and the Hellenic Executive Program and Virtual Lecture Series to an adult audience worldwide.
And outreach to the Greek-American community remains paramount.
“We launched the Hellenic Executive Program for adults in collaboration with HALC (Hellenic American Leadership Council) at the initiative of our fellow Trustee, Endy Zemenides. This six-session series of modern Greek history lectures was well received,” he said.
“This year,” Phylactopoulos told TNH, “a significant effort was made to focus on issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Study abroad is challenging for everybody, but it can bring extra difficulties for students from underrepresented or structurally disadvantaged groups. Greece, like all countries, has its own history when it comes to ethnic/racial/national diversity, gender equality, LGBTQI+ inclusion, religious diversity, and disability awareness and accommodation.”
CYA is also sensitive to the fact that study abroad may be different for students who have economic need, are English as a Second Language (ESL) students, or who are first-generation college students. “Through a multi-faceted plan of action, we set out to address these issues”, he added. He also noted that 9% of the students who participate are Greek-American, and Phylactopoulos looks forward to a higher ratio. “More Greek Americans should have discovered CYA and what a benefit it is for their children,” he believes, adding that “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 cousin, and others.”
He is very impressed, however, with the appreciation of non-Greeks of the value of experiencing a liberal arts education in Greece and has observed that “getting to know another country at that age is a great benefit to carry through one's life.”
The formula, as adjusted through the years by dedicated staff and trustees, works.
“Before the pandemic, CYA was taking off,” Phylactopoulos said. “Our enrollments were increasing at a rate that necessitated new spaces for academic and residential use and our reputation was better than ever. The crisis has led us to a certain amount of downsizing in facilities but not in personnel and we have been fortunate to have received government assistance both in loans and in subsidies for personnel salaries and rents. We have kept our morale high with the conviction that this dreadful period will be over soon.”
Indeed, CYA has used these months to make a very rapid transformation into the digital environment, adding the important fact, however, that, “it is generally recognized that the study abroad experience cannot be replaced by virtual international exposure except perhaps in the area of virtual internships.” He concluded by noting that “college students will want to travel to know the world and their numbers will be increased by all those high-school students whose faculty-led trips abroad were cancelled. I strongly believe that CYA will soon return to its former high-gear drive and to quote my favorite famous words of Shelley `If winter comes, can spring be far behind?'”
The National Herald