COMMUNITY

Patra, a college town at the sharp end of the crisis

By Nick Barnets

Despite being Greece’s third-largest city Patra does not get a lot of media attention. There was a flurry of interest last month when it elected a Communist Party-backed mayor. Also, the fate of hundreds of migrants trying to find a way through security at the city’s port so they can stow away on ferries to Italy grabs headlines from time to time. Apart from that, though, this part of the northwestern Peloponnese remains out of the spotlight.

That does not make it a sleepy backwater – far from it. A population of around 210,000 is augmented by some 70,000 students enrolled in courses at the city’s technical institute and two universities. Making up around a quarter of Patra’s population, these students help breathe life into the city.

That Patra is a college town soon becomes evident when roaming the streets of the city, dotted with cafes and bars. Anyone who looks older than 25 seems to be in the minority. Graffiti is visible on practically every wall in sight. A vibrant mixture of political messages, anarchist symbols, tags and occasionally an elaborate work of art.

Patra's college students come from all parts of Greece. Some are from small villages, others from Greece’s two biggest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. One thing they all have in common, though, is an uncertain future. Greece remains in the grips of an economic depression, the severity of which hasn't been felt since World War II. The unemployment rate stood at 26.8 percent in March and at 58.3 percent for those under 25, which is the highest in the European Union.

Despite facing such depressing economic realities, college students in Patra enjoy their time much like any in other parts of Europe or the United States. Whenever they are not in class or studying, they go out and party, meet up at cafes during the day, and try to enjoy their student years as much as possible.

“I try not to think about the economic situation,” says Thanasis, one of Patra's philosophy students. “It could be much worse. Look at what those in Third World countries and war zones have to deal with,” he tells me as he rolls up a cigarette.

However, it is when Thanasis and his fellow students start to think of their futures that they become a more concerned about the challenge ahead.

“How will I afford to have a family of my own here in Greece when it is unlikely I'll find any employment after college, let alone employment that will pay a decent wage?”

Thanasis is among those who are hoping to give living abroad a chance, hoping a student exchange in Belgium will give him opportunities to network in a country that has more jobs and opportunities to get a master's degree. Another philosophy student named Marianna tells me she hopes to at least get a job as a hairdresser after college, saying that is better than no work even if it has nothing to do with philosophy.

Herein lies the problem for Greece: A crop of young people, who have been educated at great expense to thousands of Greek households in cities like Patra, increasingly see their futures beyond the country’s borders.

According to the most recent figures from Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical agency, Greece's emigration rate in 2012 was the highest since the statistic began being measured in 1998. The last time Greece saw a wave of emigration was in the 1960s, but many who left then were laborers. Now many of those leaving have college degrees, taking their skills abroad with them. The graduates Patra produces are part of this brain drain. It is one more reason for them to savor their student days in the port city.

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