Finding Himself in Translation
Pumped after an evening's work as a student ambassador at the USA pavilion at the Living Ocean and Coast Expo in Yeosu, Korea, George Vourderis is right where he wants to be. And when the 104-nation exposition ends in August, he'll still be there, spending the academic year researching Korea's increasingly multi-ethnic population under a Fulbright fellowship.
"There's an influx of people coming to Korea from Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia especially and the Middle East," Vourderis (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College and CUNY BA in Iberian literary and cultural studies and East Asian studies, 2012) says. "They come because the Korean government gives grants to students from developing countries. They learn the language and a lot stay here, going to work in Korean businesses or starting their own businesses. That is creating a multicultural phenomenon that is changing the face of Korea."
An exchange student there not so long ago, Vourderis has an affinity for languages. A third-generation Greek-American, he attended a full-time Greek elementary and middle school in Bayside, Queens, before going to Townsend Harris High School, where he focused on Spanish, classical Greek and modern Greek.
In eighth grade, he made friends with some Koreans he met at a mall. "My best friend in high school was Korean, so I taught myself to read and write Korean from a book, and one thing led to another," he says.
In his junior year of high school, the Korea Society gave him a two-week scholarship to go to Korea on the Project Bridge program.
No CUNY college has a Korean studies department, but some campuses do offer courses in the language. Vourderis tapped into those resources through the CUNY BA program and honed his language skills as an intern at the Korea Society. He studied at Yonsei University in Seoul during his junior year of college. He turned it into nearly a year of full-time language study with the help of the CUNY BA program and Macaulay's Opportunities Fund, which awards each Macaulay student $7,500 for external educational activities.
Macaulay and the CUNY BA advisors also helped him tailor his Fulbright application. "They opened you up to the world of scholarships," he says. "Everyone in both offices is amazing."
In his off hours in Seoul, he volunteered as a translator at Severance Hospital, where he encountered Korean patients who lived in Latin America. Many Koreans had emigrated there to open factories and businesses, just as they did in the United States; their children grew up with Spanish as their first language.
"People used to kid me for learning two languages that have nothing to do with each other, but it has been very useful," Vourderis says. "The other day at the expo, the CEO of the Mexican pavilion came by with his translator, and I was able to speak to him in Spanish and to the translator in Korean. There are not many people at different pavilions who can do that."
During his Fulbright year, he intends to also volunteer at the Seoul Global Center, which the city's mayor set up to help people settle in Korea. It offers translation help in more than 20 languages.
Vourderis foresees a career in the Foreign Service. "I like interacting with people, and foreign-service work is very hands-on," he says.
Knowing Korean should be a plus, for the State Department lists it as a critical language, along with Arabic and Chinese. He also took two years of Chinese at Hunter and wants to continue studying it.
After his Fulbright year, he may go to graduate school, such as at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, whose graduates populate the Foreign Service, other government agencies and international banking and business.
And long-term, he'd like to work in Greece, which he has frequently visited during summers and where some of his family lives.
"I love it in Korea, but what's happening in Greece [as its economy disintegrates] tears my heart," he says. "One person can't change a whole country's economy, but it would make me very happy to do something to alleviate the pain."