Alumni-Sponsored Study Abroad Program Focuses on Greece

November 18, 2019

St. John’s University is often witness to the extraordinary generosity of alumni who offer unique initiatives to help current students achieve success.

One such alumnus, the late Nikos Mouyiaris ’68UC, combined his love for St. John’s with his passion for Greece and Cyprus to help launch an interdisciplinary study abroad program that is as life-altering as it is affordable.

Helping others was at the core of his character, as was his belief that true success never comes to those who act in isolation.

In 2017, Mr. Mouyiaris invited St. John’s students to stand on his shoulders when he approached the University with a gift of $100,000 and a question: How would the institution use these funds for a new academic program that offered Modern Greek and Hellenic studies?

“I want to give back to the University that helped make me who I am,” Mr. Mouyiaris said at the time. 

In grateful response, St. John’s used the gift to seed the “Modern Greek and Hellenic Studies Expendable Fund,” a cooperative enterprise that was forged between St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, in collaboration with Zoe Petropoulou, Ph.D., Assistant Provost for Global Initiatives and Associate Professor of French Languages and Literatures.

The fund’s purpose is to grow a dynamic and sustainable program that includes two faculty-led, study abroad courses which culminate in a weeklong immersion in Greece for 30 St. John’s students. One course focuses on Modern Greek Language and Culture; the other, International Management: Greece, concentrates on the Greek business sector.

Beginning in 2016, students applied from across various disciplines of study at St. John’s to travel to Athens for their embedded experience in Greek culture, government, history, art, and the business world. Their expenses were largely covered by a total of $300,000 in gifts Mr. Mouyiaris contributed to each of the three Athens trips conducted so far, including the most recent one in March.

For many of the students, Mr. Mouyiaris’s generosity freed them from a financial hurdle that would have otherwise blocked them from even considering the trip.

“I come from a working-class family, with parents who never attended college. I would never have been able to afford such an amazing trip for myself,” noted biology major Rylee Jorges in a thank-you letter to Mr. Mouyiaris and his wife, Carol.

The immersion excursion is a deeply transformative experience for students that is impossible to duplicate within the confines of a classroom. During the March trip, for example, student travelers were strolling the halls of the Greek Parliament when they unexpectedly met—and spoke and took photos with—the President of the Hellenic Republic. They learned about the Greek economy during a question-and-answer period with the chief executive officer of the Eurobank Group. They spent time with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They questioned business leaders on how to run a company. They saw the Parthenon, and the temples of Poseidon and Zeus. They dined on traditional Greek fare, learned some traditional dances of Greece, and interacted with its gracious people.  

A major highlight for the students was participating in a service-learning component during a visit to the Social Center of Caritas Hellas in Neos Kosmos, where they engaged in discussions, and shared lunch with vulnerable Greek families and refugees from Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

“This journey taught me about Greece in ways that were much more powerful than I would have experienced or absorbed by reading a book or listening to a lecture,” said student Soheib Alsayyidi, of her trip last spring to Greece.

Most importantly, the generous philanthropy demonstrated by Mr. Mouyiaris inspires other students to follow his example of paying it forward for the next generation.   

“My goal is to one day give back to St. John’s University in the same way you both did,” wrote another student, Jasmine Nunez, in her expression of gratitude to the Mouyiarises after returning from the March trip.

Mr. Mouyiaris personified the American Dream. A poor student from Athienou, Cyprus, he arrived in the United States in 1964 with the goal of becoming a chemist and entrepreneur. After earning a scholarship and a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from St. John’s in 1968 and a Master of Science degree in 1971 from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, he achieved success as Founder and Chief Executive Officer of MANA Products, Inc., a world-leading cosmetics, skin care, and hair care company. He emerged as a distinguished member of the Greek-American community and engaged in numerous philanthropic causes that underscored his dedication to the St. John’s Vincentian mission to help those most in need.

When they returned from Greece, the first cohort of student travelers invited Mr. Mouyiaris to the Queens, NY, campus, where they thanked him with a presentation they prepared. “I had the privilege to be at that event, and was greatly touched by his joyful, tear-filled exchange with the equally joyful and emotional students,” said Dr. Petropoulou.

Before student Ariana Alessandri took part in the most recent Greece trip, she never thought she would ever leave her native Queens, let alone travel abroad.

“Before I came to St. John’s, I had never been out of the country because I could not afford it,” she said. “But after a few days in Greece, I realized I am not limited to spending my entire life in my beloved Queens or even living in the US. There are so many opportunities out there. I learned the world is so much bigger than my little bubble.”