Eleftherios (Terry) Michalopoulos


Eleftherios (Terry) Michalopoulos. (Katherine Wooler photo)

“If you have a goal, don’t keep it in your head. Move it from your head to your heart.”

These words are the advice of Eleftherios (Terry) Michalopoulos, a man whose heart has learned three new languages, crossed a country (twice) on foot and enriched the lives of thousands of students.

Now the 70-year-old graduate can add crossing the Rebecca Cohn stage to his list of accomplishments, after receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Latin American Studies.

New beginnings, long journeys

Mr. Michalopoulos left Greece in 1964 and arrived in Canada with $50 in his pocket, no return ticket and no idea how to speak English.

After a successful career in food services, the former Greek army officer came to Dalhousie as a 67-year-old freshman with a mission statement, a promise that he wrote down: to “make our world a better place to be.”

When his wife passed away, Mr. Michalopoulos promised her that he would go to university and fulfill his commitment to helping others. Inspired by Ed Leach’s first-year management class, he approached the Heart & Stroke Foundation with a unique fundraising project.

“Dr. Leach gave me the toolbox full of ideas,” says Mr. Michalopoulos, who wanted to raise money by following the pilgrimage walk of St. James the Apostle along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in spring of 2008.

The beginning of the 820-kilometre camino, a trek through France and Spain, was a mountain hike that required 12 hours of walking with no place to rest and a sign at the foot that warned travellers to reconsider. When Mr. Michalopoulos saw this sign he thought of Dalhousie.

“If I change the plan because I think I cannot do it, then in any other areas where I have difficulties—for example my courses—I will find a similar excuse. So I said, ‘Mr. Terry, you keep on walking and you will make it.’”

Mr. Michalopoulos crossed Spain again in 2010, taking the Camino del Norte trip and once again raising awareness and funds for the Heart & Stroke Foundation.

He has since shared this story with classes of management students at Dalhousie, inspiring them to tackle life one step at a time.

“The mantra in the Faculty of Management is to ‘manage with integrity’ and ‘make a difference,’” says Dr. Leach. “Terry is the poster child for living these values.”

New classrooms, lifelong memories

Mr. Michalopoulos eventually focused his studies on in Spanish and Italian. While spending a semester abroad in Campeche, Mexico, he became inspired to share his love for learning languages.

He began by volunteering as an English teacher at Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS) and, when he was in his third year at Dal, he received an offer to volunteer in Mexico with Rolling English, a program that takes English workshops to rural communities outside of Campeche.

Mr. Michalopoulos became the principal instructor after two other teachers fell through. He admits to being nervous when he had to teach for the first time.

“I did some prayers to my wife up there. I said, ‘Do you have some connections?’”

But then he remembered what he had learned in his language classes at Dalhousie and he passed his wisdom along to the students in Mexico, adding 15-minute motivational speeches at the end of each English class.
“If you have a goal, write it down,” Mr. Michalopoulos told his students. “Move it from your head to your heart.”

He wipes away a small tear as he shares photos of the children he taught, explaining that he saw around 3,000 students in six weeks, sometimes driving through hours of jungle to reach them.

New achievements, same principles

Over the course of his time at Dalhousie, Mr. Michalopoulos has received the Community Spirit Award from the Lieutenant Governor, a certificate of appreciation from ISIS and an Alumni Citizenship Award from Dalhousie’s Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies. But these honours are not his most treasured pieces of paper.

“My mission statement and philosophy of life are my two most important documents,” says Mr. Michalopoulos. “I check them from time to time to see if I’m doing okay.”

Mr. Michalopoulos’ life philosophy has been well documented in his two-volume portfolio, which is a collection of photos, articles and personal reflections about his many experiences. The portfolio is being housed in the Frank G. Lawson Career Information Centre on the fourth floor of the SUB, upon the request of Dr. Leach.

There is an obvious pattern in Mr. Michalopoulos’ portfolio — the gratitude he expresses to those he has met and worked with along the way. These people include advisors, mentors and professors such as Dr. Leach and the faculty of the Department of Spanish.

“Coming to university and attending classes is not enough, but learning how to use the tools the university gives you is the goal,” he says.

“We at Dalhousie were fortunate enough to be there and help Terry channel some of [his] energy,” says Dr. Leach, who presented Mr. Michalopoulos with his degree at Tuesday’s convocation.

New degree, bright future

Mr. Michalopoulos will be teaching English at rural Mexican schools again this summer for a month before returning to Dalhousie to pursue his honours studies in Spanish and travel to Cuba for a term.

Next on his to-do-list is a bicycle ride across Canada, a trip he is considering in order to fundraise for the Heart & Stroke Foundation and promote exercise.

Campeche’s university is also willing to offer Mr. Michalopoulos a teaching position whenever he is ready, but he will only accept the position as a volunteer.

“Money is not part of my mission statement,” he says. “What would I do with money?”

"Habla el Pueblo" interview with Terry Michalopoulos