2014 Scholarship Award Recipients.

Q&A: Chris P. Tomaras – Chairman of the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation

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{Chris P. Tomaras is a philanthropist who has made significant contributions to several Greek institutions that support Greek education and offer assistance and services to various Greek communities. Since coming to the U.S. from Greece in 1957, Mr. Tomaras has been involved in a number of entrepreneurial businesses over the years, and currently operates Tomaras Investments, Ltd. As founder and current chairman of what is today the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation, he also oversees the scholarship fund that provides $250,000 in scholarships annually to Greek American students in the U.S. In celebration of the 2015 PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation Awards Ceremony and Gala, Mr. Tomaras shares a few thoughts on philanthropy, education, and Greece with Portes Magazine.}

Why does the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation stress the importance of supporting students of Hellenic descent in achieving their academic goals?

To properly answer this question, one must first be aware of the quality of the students who receive our scholarships. Academically, they are all real stars with a minimum 3.5 GPA. … These students also come from families with Hellenic values by which they have been raised, such as philotimo, integrity of character, selflessness, caring for those in need, respect of other peoples’ rights, self-discipline and many others. These values provide a more clear view in a student’s vision, that emphasizes the significance of future personal achievement, and fuels the desire to not only complete a degree but also pursue high academic achievements that ultimately become keystones to their future success.

Imagine then, combining academic excellence with the values of Hellenism, received from the Hellenic upbringing, our mission is to support well educated individuals with ethical character and principles that will be tomorrow’s engaged citizens and contributors to the American society at large. That is why it is important to support students of Hellenic descent in this capacity. And even though such expectations may exist in other cultures, with similar values, I acknowledge them and I respectfully respond that my concerns and interests are focused on the Greek American students. I salute these students, I admire them, and I encourage them to continue, and will support them to the best of my ability.

 

As the cost of higher education continues to rise, what is your perspective on the significant difference between college tuition just 15 or 20 years ago and today?

Undoubtedly, there are good reasons for tuition increases, like dealing with rising costs at our educational institutions. For example, professors’ salaries go up, more research studies are funded in many disciplines, new technology labs are paid for, sports team costs rise, and universities have a litany of marketing expenses as well. Also, significant cuts in state and federal appropriations have had a tremendous impact in revenues lost to higher education institutions. As a result, just in the last 10 years, college tuition at public four-year institutions has averaged a 76 percent increase. Private institutions have seen a 62 percent jump in tuition costs. Yet, the median family income has risen by a mere 5 percent.

How do students afford college? They get a student loan and by the time they graduate, 71 percent of them owe an average amount of $29,400, according to a report by the Institute for College Access & Success. This is where the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation comes in. With a passion for promoting education and the strong belief that we must support our Greek American students, who qualify academically but face serious economic difficulties, the Foundation offers scholarship awards of $10,000 each. Each year, in June, at a high-end social event, the Foundation distributes $250,000 in scholarships to academically qualified students to be used for tuition and college expenses. Of these, 20 students with economic need will receive $10,000 each and another 20, from a more comfortable economic background, will receive $2,500 each as recognition of their academic achievements.

 

What inspired you to launch the scholarship foundation dedicated specifically to assisting college students of Hellenic descent?

Being born and raised in Greece, it’s inherent in me to appreciate, respect and admire Hellenes and Hellenism. Hellenes are a special breed of people who carry all the goodness of a total human being well enclosed in their souls. They are patriotic, hospitable, daring, courageous, proud of their heritage and culture, with an appetite to advance and go forward in any endeavor. They are taught the Hellenic values and live by them and offer their contributions to society in all fields of advancement. (Of course there is a certain temperament – perhaps the Mediterranean Sun – that causes a shortcoming in the behavior of Greeks at times). But this is what it means to be a Hellene, and Hellenism, is a concept of values and a way of life that encompasses all that is expressed in Greece’s history, its culture, its language, its tradition and its religion.

Now, with sentiments like these, if you wanted to do something to help and support some people whom would you do it for? Certainly for my people. This is why the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation was created: to promote education and do it with people that can make things happen…the Hellenes.

 

To date, what is the total value of all scholarships awarded through the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation?

As of today, $1,938,000 has been distributed to 264 recipients. Another $250,000 will also be distributed to 40 more students at this year’s Awards Ceremony and Gala in June, reaching a total of $2,188,000 and 304 students respectively.

 

In running the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation for over ten years, what would you say has been your greatest challenge and your greatest accomplishment?

Perhaps the greatest difficulty is receiving adequate financial support from the Greek American Community to limit the use of private resources needed to fund the complete operation of the project. We must realize that the $250,000 amount distributed for scholarships is not the only cost. This is a full time operation with personnel, occupancy costs, publicity, printing, and fund raising costs including the annual gala event. In addition, our new Hellenic Birthright program has been added to our costs bringing our total annual budget to about $750,000. I must admit, however, that in recent years we have received steady support from certain donors who appreciate the work of the Foundation and contribute regularly every year. Recently, we received a large gift from the estate of the George A. Paterakis Family, which is restricted to funding only 2 scholarships annually. Regardless of the size of any donation or gift I am personally grateful to all donors for their support.

Regarding the greatest accomplishment, I feel fortunate that we have been able to help over 300 students to date to go forward and accomplish their academic goals, thus building their foundation for their further life achievements.

 

Who are some notable alumni/recipients of the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation?

I would like to name a few of the students of the recent who have excelled academically and are on their way to new heights:

Zacharias Fountas, a 2006 PanHellenic Scholarship recipient who is currently working as a credit risk analyst for Swiss Re, a large, global reinsurer. Zacharias recently moved back from New York to Chicago to obtain his MBA. He is attending the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Demitra Giannaras received her award from the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation in 2007, during her freshman year at Loyola University Chicago. She graduated from Loyola with dual degrees from two schools, a BSBA in Marketing from the School of Business and a Bachelors of Science in Psychology. Today, she works as a Business Systems Analyst at Northwestern University, in the Kellogg School of Management, where she aspires to receive her MBA.

Dakotah Apostolou is a 2008 PanHellenic Scholarship recipient. A recent Masters graduate of Taliesin, The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Dakotah is currently employed by Lost Arts, a design-oriented architectural firm. He has lived in the Netherlands and has had an internship with the Atelier 66 in Athens, Greece. Through bio-climatic design and collaboration with fellow designers, builders, and clients, he seeks to help create a healthier and more sustainable built environment.

Pete Zervakis is a 2008 PanHellenic Award recipient. Pete graduated with Highest, Campus-Wide Honors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism in May, 2011. Pete joined News 19 as a Multimedia Journalist in July of 2011. Prior to making the move to La Crosse, he interned at WLS-TV, the ABC owned and operated station in Chicago, Ill., as well as at WCBS-TV in New York City and WCIA-TV in Champaign, IL.  Pete was then promoted to Weekend Anchor in January, 2012.

Alexandra Plattos is a 2010 PanHellenic Scholarship recipient who received her Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of Illinois at Chicago, before receiving her Master of Music in Vocal Performance degree from North Park University. This past July, Alexandra performed the role of Frasquita in the Midwest Institute of Opera’s production of Carmen. She is a soprano who most recently won the grand prize for the Senior Division at the Joliet Symphony Orchestra’s (JSO) Concerto Competition and will be performing with the JSO next May.

“After receiving the generous PanHellenic Scholarship four years ago, last summer was the first time that I have been able to help with the Awards Ceremony and Gala. The whole Foundation welcomed me back with open arms—they were excited to have me, and I was excited to be there. As recipients of this award, we have the opportunity to become part of a network that encourages education, community, and growth. Its support reaches far beyond the initial award and continues with us as we make our way through life. Thank you, Mr. Tomaras and the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation for your enthusiasm and continued support.” – Alexandra Plattos

 

Tell us a little more about your personal background. What are some of your fondest memories of Greece?

Although the Civil War touched my family with a great loss, many of family life moments remain unforgettable. The city of Piraeus where I was born and raised still remains one of my favorite places to visit. My mother was born and raised in Constantinople and my father in a village outside Kalamata. I frequently visit both places and consider myself fortunate to have received an upbringing that combined the cultures of these two worlds.

 

On the topic of Greece, despite the recent crisis and significant challenges Greeks have endured, what do you think are some of the country’s lasting characteristics that remain a benefit to the country?

Greece is a beautiful country and a great place to live in and raise a family. People are warm, polite (where else do you find people speaking to you in plural), hospitable, always ready to do anything for you. Some of the learning institutions rank among the highest in the world and their graduates are known to be some of the most knowledgeable, inventive and creative in all endeavors and disciplines.

Greeks are proud of their heritage and always talk about it with deep respect. At times they will invoke the past but their current actions do not match their legendary history. They can be polite but can also be difficult to deal with sometimes. (Greeks often feel they must win every argument – I guess it is part of the Mediterranean temperament…)

But Greece will always be deeply engraved in my heart…every part of it. It gives me comfort when I visit as it is the only place in the world that has a special warmth known as Θαλπωρή.

 

As we all know, Greece is facing very difficult times but the feeling of hope in Greece is still alive.. If you were elected Prime Minister tomorrow morning, what are some of the first things you would change about Greece and ?

First, I understand the difficulty faced by our young people. It is frustrating. But unemployment is so high, not only for the youth but also for the regular work force, having reached the unbearable level of 26%. There are very few new jobs being offered. The private sector, which is the lifeline of any country’s economy, is practically non-existent. Of course, with all of these measures and the economic downturn there is no immediate prospect for the revival of new businesses, but one must start again from somewhere. As Prime Minister, the first thing I would do is try to resurrect the middle sector and small businesses between 5-50 employees, by providing new capital with loans of no interest and reasonable repayment terms to worthy existing businesses and new start-ups. I would also invite outside capital for new investments by providing a number of meaningful economic incentives and an environment of stability with no bureaucracy and red tape and a fair taxation treatment.

These are the first things I would do. I would also instill in the members of my Party ethical and honest performance. Each member represents a number of people and he or she should promote and defend the interests of their constituencies not the orders of the Party, which in most cases have an underlying political and not public interest. I would declare war on corruption beginning with my Party’s MPs and attack and harshly punish everyone else who has been involved in corruption, as corruption is manifested at the expense of the people (O Λαός). And we see how much the people are suffering today. I would make sure the taxes due are collected properly because currently they are not. But this will not happen unless the government upgrades its tax collection procedures (especially for the collection of VAT at the time of the transaction via internet). I would put into use a fair taxation system where the large income earners pay a much higher (compare to now) share of taxes and offer relief to the small income earners. I would also employ measures (already studied and formulated) by which the use of cash will be minimized and replaced by credit and debit cards. This is because the use of cash promotes corruption and tax evasion.

That is what I would do, but I will not have that opportunity. It takes an honest and ethical politician, one who has the guts and can impose his will without being afraid of political consequences, but only be concerned about the welfare of the people. Do we have somebody like that?

 

From a slightly different perspective on the situation in Greece, if you were to invest in an industry or a sector of the Greek economy that could help Greece grow out of the crisis, what would that be and why?

I don’t know how to make shoes or airplanes but I do know the food business. My interest would lie in food products manufacturing or processing, especially natural products from Greece. But the manufacturing and operating methods, including those that apply to human resources, would be those that we employ in America. High quality raw materials, quality control discipline, modern plants, fair treatment of the employees, etc would be the operating standards of a business investment, should I start one.

 

For more information about the Pan-Hellenic Scholarship Foundation click here.