There are many women that many of us are not aware of, even though we are in their debt. These women quietly made inroads that benefit younger generations, with courage, principles and hard work. Ismene Phylactopoulou (1907-83), who founded the high-caliber educational institution College Year in Athens (CYA) in 1962, is one of them.
We could describe CYA as a cultural diplomacy pioneer, as Phylactopoulou’s endeavor has succeeded in making generations of American college students fall so deeply in love with Greece that they remain “ambassadors” for the country their entire lives. The important thing, however, is how the idea for the project came about.
A refugee from Asia Minor, Phylactopoulou was 15 years old when her family of seven fled to Greece, landing on the Greek island of Chios. Thanks to her ingenuity and resourcefulness, she was able as a refugee, eligible under a program established by Eleftherios Venizelos, to secure a scholarship to the famed Wellesley College in Boston, Massachusetts.
She went on to teach biology at Athens College and Pierce College in Greece, where she also met her husband, George Phylactopoulos, and had a family. The idea for College Year in Athens was a response to the constant queries she was getting from friends in the United States, asking where they could send their children to study in Greece, as the 1960s was a time when the country was particularly popular among Americans.
It was a bold and risky endeavor because while she had all the necessary entrepreneurial acumen to make the project work, she was basically an educator and lacked knowledge of financial management. She set up CYA as a non-profit organization, a fact that earned it instant credibility and some top-notch associates. Thanks to these factors, but also to her son Alexis Phylactopoulos, who carries on her vision today, CYA grew and matured, establishing the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies (DIKEMES).
Today, College Year in Athens brings some 1,000 students from top-flight American universities to Greece to attend classes for one academic year, a semester or short academic programs, with the aim of getting them in touch with the country’s culture as they study its ancient, Byzantine and modern history. Despite the enormous challenges posed to education by the coronavirus pandemic, and especially for students in other countries, the institution is not only surviving, it is able to continue endowing Greek society with its intellectual benefits.
“The American students come here with an elevated sense of awareness and sensitivity and are therefore more attuned to the issues of racism and tolerance dominating their lives. And their voices come to enrich our own public dialogue. Today’s foreign students have the idealism to want to give back to the society that is hosting them and seek ways through NGOs and other activities to serve the common good. These students are also very anxious about their careers and eager to acquire skills that will help them get into the job market,” says Alexis Phylactopoulos, the president of CYA/DIKEMES.
“Our job is to show them that a deeper knowledge of history, philosophy, language and the humanities more generally, as well as the understanding of different cultures, will make them more able to adapt to different conditions and ways of life. This will also help them deal more successfully with adversity: from pandemics and the changes in profession they can expect over the course of their careers, to the decisions they make in their personal lives and the choices they make about the politicians who govern them. Above all, it will help them be inspired so that they can shape their own futures,” he adds.