by Hugo Bryan Castillo
photography by Reina Santa Cruz
Twenty-year-old Daniela Ali came from Albania to Greece to study at the University of La Verne, Athens Campus. She arrived two days before the first day of classes, but she did not receive a warm welcome. “When we walked into the classroom and saw the professor, he said, ‘What the f – – – are you doing here!’ And he told us to go to the auditorium to hear the sad news,” she says. She heard, “La Verne collapsed,” and the ULV main campus was blamed.
This is just one of many stories heard from Athens students who had to leave their lives behind to complete their educational careers in a foreign country when the University of La Verne, Athens campus, closed its doors September 2004.
Stanimir Sofroniev, Valentini Mazellari, Harris Giannakopoulos and Daniela Ali are four out of the 50 Athens students who elected to make the transition from studying in Athens, Greece to living in La Verne, Calif., to complete their education. “There was a declining enrollment, financial problems, and the Athens campus was not paying the University of La Verne main campus,” says Phil Hawkey, executive vice president of the University, on why the Athens campus closed.
In 1975, the ULV Athens, Greece program started on an American military base in Nea Makri, just outside of Athens. In 1993, the campus location was moved to Kifissia, and, in 2003, it was moved again to Halandri. “It was like a franchise. They used our academic programs, and the campus offered ULV degrees,” says Hawkey. “Technically, the students there were ULV students.”
But on Sept. 17, 2004, Athens students received letters stating that the Athens campus was going to be shut down. Because of the campus closing, ULV felt compelled to open its doors to the Athens students. But there was a situation: Where were the Athens students going to stay while attending ULV’s main campus? That was when the spotlight was shone on the Office of Housing and Residential Life. “It was an unfortunate circumstance that happened at Athens,” says Byron Howlett, director of the Office of Housing and Residential Life. “I wanted to make the transition as smooth as possible and try to accommodate them any way possible.” Howlett says that some of the obstacles were trying to figure out who was and was not coming. Space was made for all comers in residence halls. But at the last minute, a few reconsidered. Students who did come to California were offered a year of free room and board, and only had to pay 8,100 Euros for tuition (around $8,600) instead of the traditional rate of $22,800 a year. “Also, we didn’t have enough space on campus for all the students, so we had to work with the Sheraton Hotel to accommodate space,” says Howlett. “Then, we had to find ULV students who were willing to live at the Sheraton.” Overall, Howlett feels that the students are adjusting well to this new place called California.
Philip Hofer, director of the ULV International and Study Abroad Center, says, “I was concerned about their adjustment to ULV in California being smooth and comfortable. I do hope they take advantage of our support systems.” Hofer felt he needed to help the Athens students with the adjustment. “We all felt sorry that none of us couldn’t grasp the idea of having to deal with the obstacles these Athens students experienced,” he says. In terms of culture shock, Hofer knows without a doubt they are experiencing it. Culturally, he says, it is a different world being here, and academically, ULV is different. “In Greece, people talk over food, and that’s not part of our culture,” Hofer says. “Transportation wise, we have our systems of transportation, but it is difficult getting around California without a car.”
Stanimir, Valentini, Harris and Daniela each have their own stories and experiences on how it felt leaving home to create a new one.
Twenty-one-year-old Stanimir is originally from Bulgaria, but he lived in Athens with his mom, dad and his younger brother. He attended the ULV Athens campus as a business administration major. Wearing a blue sleeveless shirt, he sits down at a table outside the University’s dining hall and begins to describe his feelings about his school closing. “I was kind of worried,” he says, pushing his food tray to the side. “A lot of stuff was going on. I did not know what to think.”
He did not know anybody, since he had never been to California. His work and his family are in Athens. But he came to the main campus to experience a different culture. Getting over here, however, was no easy task. “It was a big mess,” he says raising his voice. “I had to transfer a lot of documents from Athens campus to California; it was all crazy. My first reaction when I got here to California was ‘it’s still day here?’” he says, laughing. “I flew for 12 hours, and I was exhausted.”
Stanimir was quickly impressed with the people at ULV. They were kind to him, and he describes them as “very warm.” “They helped us a lot getting comfortable,” he says. Stanimir sees ULV as being like a big family. “Because it is a small school, everybody knows each other,” he says sincerely. Differences? “I miss the food!” he says with excitement. “I also miss the nightlife and hanging out with my friends.”
He thinks California is a great place. “For someone who hasn’t been here, it is very exciting seeing all the attractions.” However, one thing Sofroniev does not like about ULV or California is the rules and policies. “Americans are pretty strict with rules,” he says. Unlike the United States, minors as young as 16 can purchase alcohol in Greece and throughout Europe. “If you buy a beer here, you feel like a criminal because you have to show them proof that you can buy one,” he says. “It is not like that in Greece.” He also thinks that Americans worry too much about too many things. “I don’t think Americans enjoy life like Europeans do,” he says. Stanimir says people in Greece get a cup of coffee and take their time talking to friends and drinking. “Americans just get their coffee and leave in a rush,” he says, having observed this at the D Street Coffeeberry. “You can’t see people get coffee and relax; people don’t have coffee and sit for two or three hours.” He is also surprised that the nightclubs close at two in the morning, whereas in Greece they remain open until the break of dawn.
Asked about school, Stanimir was cautious. “I wasn’t aware of how things were going to work here; how professors teach their classes, how exams were done.” In his opinion, the teachers here are easier than the ones back home. “In Athens, you have to memorize the material for a test,” he says. “Here you can have your notes to take a quiz.”
One big issue Stanimir had coming here was transportation. “My advice to someone coming here is to buy a car.” In the beginning, it was crazy for Stanimir finding a car. “You had to find someone to give you a ride. You couldn’t just walk to Target,” he explains. But now he owns a car and everything seems easier. After he graduates, he will return to Athens, knowing he has the knowledge he needs to make job hunting easy. “I’d rather be in Athens,” he says while laughing. “If you gave me the choice of here or there, I’d rather be there, in Athens.”
Wearing jeans, flip flops and a pink shirt that says, “If you love him let him go . . . if he doesn’t come back he’s with me,” Valentini, 22, is from Albania and is a criminology major. When she heard that her school had closed, she felt frustrated and angry. “I thought I lost my studies, and there weren’t a lot of universities in Athens,” says Valentini. “It wasn’t the best experience, and we were a big family, and we miss a lot of the teachers.” However, when she knew that she was coming to California to continue her studies, she couldn’t wait. “I thought it was good because it was going to be a great experience,” she says. “I was confused as well because it was far away from home.” It was hard for Valentini to leave Athens because it would be the first time away from her family, and she was afraid of getting homesick. But it was a quick decision, she says. “It was really hard to be that separated from them,” Valentini emphasizes. “My boyfriend and I were together for two years, and I had to leave him as well.” But she was more concerned about her studies. “In the beginning, it was crazy to start a new life and leave the old one,” she says. “Now I am comfortable, and I made the best choice.”
When Valentini arrived to California in January 2005, she remembers her first impression: “Clearly, the teachers and people were very friendly, and that is what I liked.” She acknowledges that she has not made any friends yet because it is a different setting. But she was surprised when she arrived at the ULV main campus. “My first impression was ‘Wow, this school is big!’” she says with a laugh, comparing the Athens campus to the main campus. “I liked the dorms because they looked like big doll houses,” she says, laughing. “ULV Athens was small and to me ULV is a big school.”
One thing Valentini does miss is her nephew. “He was 1 year old when I left, and he was the reason why I didn’t want to leave,” she says. “He’s quickly growing, but the boy was close to me.”
Before coming to the United States, she thought Americans were smart, gentle and very active people. After arriving to California, her opinion did a complete 180. “They seem very cold with people they don’t know,” she says. She notes how Americans are so concerned about smoking, but in Greece everybody smokes. “A lot of people look at me weird smoking cigarettes,” she says. She also mentions that it seems to her that families here are not as close and strong as in Greece. “It looks like not a lot of people go home to spend time with their families.”
Valentini’s biggest problem coming here was dealing with the language. “I felt like I couldn’t express myself,” she says. She did study English in Athens for a year before coming to ULV. “I am still trying to understand it. But I know enough to be good.”
Even though she is happy here, she wishes she had a lot of things. “I wish I had my family here,” she says. “I wish I were a U.S. citizen so I could work.” But she says that the thing that keeps her going everyday is getting a phone call from home at midnight and just hearing her family.
Even though 21-year-old business management and marketing major Harris was born in Miami, Florida and lived there until age 4, he spent most of his life in Greece. Even so, when one talks to him, she would never guess he was born in the states.
“My dad was a bodybuilder, and he trained other bodybuilders, like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he says, wearing beige shorts, blue flip-flops and a white shirt that says, “Extreme” across the front. “We traveled a lot, and since both of my parents are Greek, we decided to stay there.”
Harris remembers going to school and seeing a lock on the front doors of the Athens campus. “It was pretty crazy,” he says. “We never thought such a thing would happen.” But coming to the states to study did not bother him since he had already lived here. “Life is full of changes,” he says. “I thought I was going to graduate in the summer, so I transferred my credits and decided to come here.” He was excited to come to California because he had heard many people compare Miami to California. “I had fun on the first day I got here, even though I got no sleep.” He also likes the ULV main campus: “It was a quieter, peaceful place,” he says. “At the same time I asked, “What am I gonna do around here?’” He described the campus looking like a ghost town when he arrived on Sept. 2. “It was all empty,” he adds with surprise.
Asked what he misses, he had a list prepared in his mind. “First of all, I miss my family, my dog (a pit bull named Lucy); I miss my friends a lot, my job . . . in general, the life,” he says. But if there is one thing he misses the most, it’s the Greek food. “Greek food is something I have to stress.” He mentions that the food here has no flavor, unless Ranch dressing is added. “You never get fat in Greece,” he says. “But here I eat an omelet, and I feel my ass jiggling!” he says with a laugh. “It’s the whole Mediterranean thing.” He also doesn’t like the fact that there is nothing to do here without a car, and because there are too many laws, Americans rebel.
He says that Americans seem more pulled back from the laws and government. “In Greece, people do what they want to do,” he says. “They get used to it from an early age.” He describes how students here just enjoy being in their rooms partying, and when he goes to the coffee house, unlike in Greece, it is empty. “Sometimes you feel alone.” His main concern about coming to California was transportation. “You always have to plan for something ahead of time, and if it goes wrong, you’re screwed,” he says. “It’s pretty hard, but I can find someone who is free.” With a big smile on his face and a warm aura, Harris says he is enjoying his time here. He hopes to start a business in the United States after graduating.
Daniela, a 20-year old computer science major, looked comfortable on this rainy day, wearing orange and grey striped pajama pants, sitting on her bed with a shirt that says, “Here I am! Now what are your other 2 wishes?” Since Daniela’s parents were paying for her schooling, she did not want to tell her parents back home in Albania that the Athens campus had closed its doors. She ended up telling them three weeks after it closed. “I told them that the University will change its name,” she laughs. “They did not get it, so it was OK.” She adds that she was disappointed when the University “collapsed” because she chose to attend that University. But things got better for her. “Once I heard the words ‘California,’ I was excited,” she says with a smile. “It was my ambition to come to the United States before going to Athens.” When she heard about the main campus offer, she was excited that the Athens campus collapsed. For the three months she was in Greece, she took advantage of the time and enjoyed herself. She went back home to Albania for a month and then packed her bags for California. But her excitement was met by nervousness when she arrived to California. “When I first got here, I was scared,” she says. “I was in the room with Valentini, and I was afraid to sleep alone.” She was a lost soul. She did not know where to go or even where to eat. “We went to the housing office and tried to find the other girls,” she says. “We did not know that Davenport existed.” She laughs when she remembers sleeping in her room and hearing the train pass by: “I thought it was an earthquake,” she says. When she thinks about home, she feels lonely. “In Greece, it only took two hours to get home, but from here it’s like 24 hours, and it feels like forever.”
She likes ULV and the fact that it is a small community; she feels close to the professors. However, Daniela does say it feels easier to get a high grade in classes. “In Athens, it was more strict.” When it comes to Americans, she says they are two different personalities. “The first time you meet an American they are nice. Later, they act like they don’t see you sometimes.” Oddly enough, Daniela mentions that Americans look like “psychos.” “I hear about Americans raping a girl and killing her,” she says with concern. “Maybe they watch too many scary movies. I feel like I can’t joke with them.” She laughs and shrugs her shoulders.
Since being here, Daniela has experienced many differences. “At the beginning, I tried to get cigarettes, and we couldn’t because they wanted to see I.D.” In Greece, Daniela says if you are 10 years old, you can buy alcohol. “People here really want to make sure you are who you are,” she says, smiling. One observation that Daniela has made that she finds uncomfortable is seeing a young pregnant girl. “You walk around and you see a 14-year-old girl, and she is pregnant,” she says. “That is something strange.” She mentions that is something one does not regularly see in Greece. “It makes me uncomfortable to see a girl with a big stomach, knowing she is pregnant.”
While most of her time is spent doing homework and working on campus, she looks forward to going home, since she has been here since February. “When I see a picture of my family, I want to go home. Looking how far home is, I feel like I’ve never been there.” She looks at a picture of her family on her dresser and smiles. “We have some brave souls who venture out into the unknown to finish their educational career,” says Howlett. “Athens students have done a good job blending in with the students here at the main campus. It worked out fine.”
But is there anything we can learn from them? Hofer suggests that they are teaching us how to be flexible and adaptable. “When I talk to them, I sense a feel of loss and gain,” he says. “They can make the adjustment. They’ve become refugees of an institution.”
Hofer also says that most of the Athens students will choose to stay in the United States for a year to work. “Also, I assume that some of the Greek students will go back to be with their families.”
Stanimir, Valentini, Harris and Ali seem to have adapted well to their new California lives. But they share one desire: to go home to the life they miss.