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Citizens' academies doing brisk business

By Ioanna Fotiadi

An 18-year-old student, a 30-year-old office worker, a priest, a 60-year-old farmer and an unemployed PhD student sit side by side, notebooks poised, waiting for the lecture to begin. Throughout Greece there are currently 45 so-called citizens’ academies, an education program inspired by a group of professors at the University of the Aegean who founded the first “people’s university” in 2010 on the island of Lesvos.

“Our doors are open to everyone,” said Efstratios Papanis, an assistant professor and one of the founding fathers of the initiative, during a recent interview. “Our intention is not to replace formal educational institutions but to act as a counterweight. The academies are basically like an initiation process that often lead to student retaking their university entrance exams or starting a postgraduate degree.”

The students at the citizens’ academies are anywhere from 18 to 85 years old, though the average age is 35-55 and most are women.

“These are mostly people who want to expand their horizons, to fulfill an adolescent academic dream or to open up more career opportunities,” said Papanis. “Over half of them are unemployed.”

The academies run four-year courses that include local lore, life experience and intuition to explore subjects rather than just the science or theory behind them.

“A farmer may share his experiences and we will expand on it to put it into a systematic and theoretical framework,” explained Papanis.

The lectures are delivered by professors from all over the country and have a more conversational tone rather than following a strict curriculum. The professors also move around from one class to another, meaning that every class is unique.

In the first year of the academies, students are taught psychology and counseling, before voting for what they would like to explore next. The most popular subjects are journalism, primary medicine, history, history of art, Greek language and economics. The cost of 26 three-hour lectures is 80 euros a year and half that for the unemployed, students, people with more than three children, single parents and those with special needs. Students who can’t make it to class can follow it via Skype or in the recorded video version which is uploaded on the platform of the academies.

“We are also asked to hold professional orientation seminars or to set up discussion groups on specific topics, such as depression,” said Papanis. “Without doubt, loneliness is one of the factors that motivates many to come to us.”

The turnout at the academies is more than impressive. The Volos Academy, for example, has 1,200 students, while academies are also being planned for far-flung parts of the country such as the islands of Aghios Efstratios and Limnos.

Meanwhile, the president of the cultural center in the village of Kalloni on Lesvos, Theocharis Pelekos, recently inaugurated a new school.

“I was one of the first students of the Mytilene Academy,” said Pelekos, 50, an army officer. “I am now in my third year and it has changed my life: I have learned how to deal with stressful situations and ways to help my mother, who is elderly.”

Three priests, the deputy mayor and all the staff at the local medical center have already enrolled at the new academy.

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