Heritage Greece: Changing Lives
By Arthur Dimopoulos
The National Hellenic Society (NHS) is a relative newcomer on the Greek-American scene. There are rumblings about NHS being a country club of the Greek American elite – NHS members do include leaders from Wall Street. Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Washington power circles – but the characterization is inaccurate. NHS is selective of who gets to be a member but not as a barometer of wealth. To the contrary, NHS members share something special beyond success: a profound appreciation of this bond of heritage that ties us to one another, abiding appreciation of our parents’ and forbears’ sacrifices and the values instilled in us – values serving as the wellspring of our success: philotimo, hard work, education and love. Love of heritage, family, of parea and country. Being Greek is about giving back: to family, community and society – hallmarks of NHS membership.
Passing on the legacy of our “Greekness” to our children and future generations in a world competing for our time is a challenge when viewed within the context of modern demographics and institutions not keeping apace with change. The statistics speak for themselves – the “community” we established will continue to evolve and within the next two or three generations will be unrecognizable.
There is nothing permanent, except change, said Heraclitus. Many lament change, while others embrace change as opportunity. Changes within the “community” are no different than those we see in life, especially in the business world. Icons like Kodak, RCA, and Blockbuster, yesterday’s industry leaders, are no more. Compared those to Apple and Samsung, companies that embrace and thrive on change and sport a combined market cap over nearly $1 trillion, three times Greece’s GDP!
NHS looked upon Hellenic heritage with its many nuances, features, and benefits as a product and identified our prospective customers of the same as the next generation of progeny of American families with varying levels of Greek descent, several of which are totally detached from their Greek identity and the institutions once serving as rallying points.
The game-changer strategy NHS developed is branded as “Heritage Greece.” It is a two-week cultural and educational immersion for college students of Greek-American descent. Students with exceptional academic credentials and an open mind and desire to find out more about their Hellenic roots and identity. The students are hosted by the American College of Greece (ACG), Europe’s oldest and largest American styled university, located on a plush 65-acre campus on an Athens suburb hillside.
The Greek-American students are paired with an exceptional group of Greek student peers from ACG. Together, they share journey of and discovery learning from each other and from a staff of experts and professionals. Learning unfolds in non-traditional ways – classroom language classes are augmented in the Plaka, Agora, Acropolis, Benaki and Naufplio museums. Cooking and dance classes coupled with tours of wineries, ancient sites and sailing regattas to the Saronic Isles. Early one morning, on the Isle of Poros, a large group of students took it upon themselves to attend early morning Liturgy at St. George’s Church. The Priest and congregants were so stunned to see young people return to Church and enlisted three of the young men to serve as altar boys, even more stunned to see them know exactly what to do with precision practices long abandoned. The congregants begged the students to come to their homes for breakfast, some of the intangible benefits of Heritage Greece that leave lasting memories.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, 10 Stavros Niarchos Heritage Greece Scholars participated in this year’s Program. The Niarchos Scholars and entire Heritage Greece class met with Stavros Niarchos Foundation officials in Athens and were led on a tour of the incredible new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Kallithea currently under construction. The Center will house Greece’s National Library and Greek National Opera. The grant underscores the Niarchos Foundation’s Commitment to youth, education and in building bridges. The NHS also received grant funding from the Elios Foundation in San Francisco for three Elios Foundation Scholars.
The Heritage Greece 2014 students were also paid surprise visits by two special guests, Bill Antholis, Managing Director of the Brookings Institution, and Despina Anastasiou, Dow Chemical General Manager of Greece & Cyprus. The students were given inspirational messages to ever excel at what they choose to do and stay connected with their heritage, one another and with Greece.
For Heritage Greece students, the journey continues beyond the trip back from Greece. Students are enrolled as part of the Heritage Greece Alum Network, convening at a reunion in tandem with the NHS’ annual event, Heritage Weekend and Classic held in early October at the Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne, FL. Heritage Greece Alum from the previous five sessions gather with NHS members as the NHS continues to play a role in mentoring and advising them, grooming them to be ambassadors of Hellenic heritage. In turn, the students participate in NHS at the local level augmenting NHS local activities and efforts.
There is no question of the powerful and positive impact of Heritage Greece. For Greece, the Program is also a “win-win” as scores of students and their families have returned to Greece –some to study, others to visit long-lost relatives and to further explore their Greek roots. Leveraging the bonds made is just a matter of time. While the Heritage Greece students were in Athens, NHS member, and Dow Chemical Chair and CEO Andrew Liveris met with Greece’s Prime Minister Samaras, and the head of IBM Europe to announce the creation of an Information Delivery Systems Center creating many jobs for the next generation. A paradigm of “giving back,” something worth instilling and passing on to the Heritage Greece family.
One student, Allie Weber of Indiana University, had this to say: “I never in a million years thought that I would get the chance to experience Greece in the way I was blessed to through Heritage Greece, let alone with other Greek students like myself. I’ve been asked more times than I can count ‘how was Greece?’ The only words I can find to answer this are ‘life changing.’ “Heritage Greece was a chance to visit incredible historical sites, taste authentic Greek cuisine, and experience all of the things about Greece Yiayia and Pappou constantly regaled over, but also a to make lifelong friends. Though I was told the relationships made on a trip like this are unique, I had no idea what to expect. Having so much in common from the beginning coupled with sharing amazing experiences together, the 2014 Heritage Greece class quickly became my family. This program gave me an opportunity to experience amazing things – to better understand my culture, and connect with other students like myself. Heritage Greece was a once in a lifetime experience, and I couldn’t possibly be more thankful to have been able to be a part of it. The first thing that I did when I got home was rearrange my schedule for the fall so that I could take Modern Greek. I am now officially enrolled in the introductory course. Without this program, I don’t know that I ever would’ve taken the initiative to learn Greek. I don’t know how I could repay NHS for this incredible gift – a gift of culture, experience, adventure, and most importantly, lifelong friendships.”
For further information see: www.hellenicsociety.org/programs.
Arthur Dimopoulos is the Executive Director of the National Hellenic Society.