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George Karagkiaouris sat in the cafe one evening eating dinner during the spring semester of his sophomore year. He checked his email and saw the notification he had been waiting and stressing over for the past couple weeks: He was going to be a resident assistant starting in the fall of 2015.
Happiness and relief washed over him. This meant he wouldn’t have to leave Quinnipiac–a place where he excelled in school–and go back home to Greece. If he couldn’t become an R.A. then his family would not have been able to afford his room and board anymore.
“I felt that I was set for life,” said Karagkiaouris, now a junior software engineering and biology major. “I was like okay my troubles are over, now I can focus on something else.”
Then, in mid June, Greece’s financial crisis worsened. The country is in debt and doesn’t have the money to pay off its loans. The International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank have bailed out Greece before, on the terms that the country would raise taxes and cut the budget, according to the New York Times. But in June 2015 the European Central Bank decided to stop emergency funding to the country, causing banks to close and leading the country to impose capital control, according to the BBC.
Capital control means money cannot be wired out of Greece. For Karagkiaouris, that means his parents cannot send him money to pay for Quinnipiac.
“Everything was going good until that happened,” he said. “And it’s something that is out of your control, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
International students cannot take out loans, so Karagkiaouris had to find a way to pay his insurance and the part of his tuition that isn’t covered by his scholarship. He decided to stay in Hamden over the summer to make money. He had an internship as a web developer for a startup company in New Haven, but also picked up a job as a waiter in New Haven and did small projects for another software engineering company. This meant he was working a different job almost every day and biking home from the restaurant in New Haven at 3 a.m., three to four days a week.
“I made most of [the money to pay for my tuition] over the summer,” Karagkiaouris said. “But I still had to pay for food, my phone bills, my insurance because people forget that you’re here, you still have to make money to pay for your food, but your insurance is paid from your parents, your phone bills are paid from your parents, like your parents give you money every week, all that little stuff and well I have to pay for that myself.”
A busy summer turned into an even busier fall, as Karagkiaouris had to balance a job at the Learning Commons, his R.A. duties, his internship and his studies.
This is a big difference from his freshman year, when he only had to study about 10 minutes a week for all his classes. He even added biology as a major his sophomore year because he felt like he wasn’t doing enough work.
“I felt like I was wasting my time here especially because my parents were working so hard to pay for me being here,” he said. “I felt like I was wasting their money because I was doing nothing, so I decided to do a double major to fill my time to feel like I was doing something.”
Classes were easy for Karagkiaouris because he had already studied the material back in Greece. Growing up, Karagkiaouris was a curious kid.
“Since I was young I was very intrigued to know stuff,” he said. “I was the kid that asked so many questions about everything, ‘How does that work? How does that work?’….It bugs me very much not knowing how something works.”
So the summer before first grade, his parents, who are both chemists, started to teach him the math and Greek he would learn that year.
“I went into the first class of elementary school knowing everything I was going to take, it wasn’t that hard,” he said.
While he was in first grade, his parents taught him the second grade curriculum. Then in second grade, he learned third grade material. By the time he left elementary school, he already knew most of what he would learn in middle school. By the end of middle school, he was done with high school material.
“I learn fast, that’s the good thing about me, I don’t know why, I guess I was born with it,” he said. “Classes may not help me, but when I sit with someone one-on-one and I can go with my pace I can learn very fast.”
By high school, he had little to do, so he entered international academic competitions for chemistry, physics, math and biology. These competitions not only allowed him to study at the college level, but gave him the chance to travel to 10 different countries for free. It also was what impressed Quinnipiac to give him an academic scholarship.
“Honestly I thank my parents for doing that,” he said. “I might not have had as much free time as other kids had, but I definitely enjoyed my time. … It ended up being the reason I’m here. I’m going to be the same with my kids now.”
Karagkiaouris has become somewhat of a legend in the engineering department, according to his friends. He is known among his classmates for his prowess at computer programming.
“George, he’s got superpowers,” junior mechanical engineering major Kyzer Gardiola joked.
“He’s magic,” junior mechanical engineering major Rachel Davis added.
As a freshman, Karagkiaouris started helping classmates with their courses. A few of his professors ask him to advise classmates during group projects. Some professors have allowed him to only attend class on test days because they knew Karagkiaouris already knew the material.
Davis said Karagkiaouris is “super smart,” but for Gardiola and Davis, there is more to Karagkiaouris than just his intelligence.
Gardiola is an international student from Saudi Arabia and also an RA, and the two have become close. They like to go camping and do activities off campus together.
Gardiola said Karagkiaouris is always there for his friends, whether it’s to help them study or go get food in the cafe.
“You know everyone’s very busy all the time, but George somehow finds a time to make time for you,” Gardiola said. “And you’ll be very surprised because he’s probably the busiest person on campus. I’ll text him ‘Hey do you want to have lunch later.’ [He’s] like, ‘Hey I can’t right now, but we can do this later.’ And then I’ll find out what he’s doing…he’s actually helping someone out.”
Davis said Karagkiaouris is genuine and caring. She can trust him and go to him for advice, even about boy problems.
“He’s just like the rational big brother that can tell you, ‘Oh have you thought about it from his perspective?’” she said.
Since Karagkiaouris won a medal at one of the international competitions, he could have his pick of basically any college in Greece, he said. But Karagkiaouris knew he did not want to study there.
“Education in Greece is not the best, and just to have a degree in the U.S. is so much bigger,” he said. “Also it was like the transition state for me to find a job and everything else. I just felt like here I’m going to have a future where in Greece, not so much.”
There are few jobs in Greece and the corruption there means you have to know people to get a good one, Karagkiaouris said.
“If you have a doctorate here, you’re guaranteed to have a good job,” he said. “In Greece there’s people who have master’s and doctorate degrees and work as waiters because there’s nothing else to do.”
Compared to other families, Karagkiaouris said his is doing okay. Karagkiaouris’ mother Vicky lost her job five to six years ago after the factory she worked at closed. Now she tutors chemistry and went back to school to get a biology degree. His father Stelios also tutors chemistry and works at a factory. They do not have to pay rent on their home because they inherited it from Karagkiaouris’ grandparents, which helps. His parents are making enough to support the family. Still, they do have to pay back his grandmother and a friend they borrowed money from to pay for Karagkiaouris’ room and board his freshman and sophomore year.
“If I wasn’t here, if I was studying in Greece I would be fine, our family would be probably okay,” he said.
His sister Maria is a sophomore in college in Greece. Karagkiaouris wanted to get an RA job his sophomore year, so his parents wouldn’t have to pay his room and board and could send Maria to college out of the country too. But Karagkiaouris did not get to be an RA on his first try.
“That felt bad,” he said. “When I found out all I could think was that if I had gotten the RA job I wouldn’t have to pay so that money could go to my sister, my sister could be here instead of being in Greece, so I felt not guilty, but I don’t know, responsible. I felt bad for it for a while, but then it turns out that even if I had gotten the RA job it wouldn’t have worked out anyways because of the whole [financial] situation [in Greece].”
But Karagkiaouris said Maria plans to get her master’s degree elsewhere in Europe or in the United States. As for Karagkiaouris, he plans to graduate from Quinnipiac, work for a year, get his doctorate in the United States and then decide which country he wants to work in.
Except he knows he won’t stay in Greece.
“If it was a perfect world I would like to go back,” he said. “But I know I’m not going to be able to because I have no future back there and I know it.”
Gardiola said he is confident Karagkiaouris will be successful, no matter what he does.
“[He’s] very, very passionate about what he does,” Gardiola said. “I’ve never seen another software engineer on campus that is as capable as he is. … If he picks up something he’ll pick it up well and he never half-asses anything. There’s people that’ll do something and kind of just ‘eh, it’s done. I don’t care.’ George does a 110, 120 percent.”