Monday, August 5, 2019 - 9:45am

For Eleni Nikolopoulos, life offers just as many lessons as any classroom. The 31-year-old business management major has traveled a long road to Mercy College. Now a security specialist with the New York Power Authority (NYPA), this summer Nikolopoulos was recognized by her employer for her “NYPA Powerful Story.” It came as no surprise to anyone who knows her impressive work ethic, cheery helpfulness and eagerness to learn.

The NYPA citation reads in part: “With her smile and can-do attitude, Eleni takes every opportunity to receive training. She understands the importance of mentoring and is always willing to share the knowledge and insights she has learned with her co-workers and peers.” And the accolades keep coming. Recently Nikolopoulos was honored at Mercy’s Bronx Leadership Awards Dinner. “Eleni is always front and center—attentive, curious and very engaged,” said Mercy College Assistant Professor Victoria Roberts-Drogin. “She’s extracting the maximum value from her Mercy education.”

Growing up in the Nikolopoulos family meant life revolved around the diner that her father opened and ran in the Fordham section of the Bronx after emigrating from Greece. From a young age Nikolopoulos helped at the diner, working after school and on weekends. “My father taught me that in order to be respected, you start at the bottom,” she said. “I’m not afraid of challenges.”

But in 2010, life took an unexpected, tragic turn when her father died suddenly. Nikolopoulous’ mother soon became overwhelmed with the demands of running the diner. While her two siblings were poised to take on their mother’s responsibility, they needed to focus on their studies. “I knew my dad would want me to step up, so when Mom needed help, I did what he taught me,” she said. Although it interrupted her studies at Queens College, she took over management of the diner, putting in many hours a day, usually seven days a week, for nearly two years.

When her mother finally sold the family business, Nikolopoulos thought about returning to school, but she hadn’t been happy at Queens College. She felt lost in the large classes, and the health care major she’d chosen at her mother’s urging didn’t appeal to her. She recalled how her father used to say, “Follow your dreams and you’ll find yourself.” She decided to make a change. After contacting friends in the security industry, Nikolopoulos began working as a security officer for two homeless shelters. Soon a friend referred her to a better position at a college, where she met the man who would later become her boss at NYPA. Recognizing her positive attitude and willingness to work hard, he offered her a job. Recognizing her potential, he strongly urged her to return to school and finish her bachelor’s degree.

At Mercy College, Nikolopoulos met Roberts-Drogin, who saw her potential. “Working at the diner, Eleni developed many skills that she can transfer to any career. Now she is being offered advancement opportunities because of those skills,” said Roberts-Drogin. “Reciprocally, she applies classroom lessons to help her improve on the job, which serves as a great example for her fellow students. When she shares stories in the classroom about her work experiences, she elevates the discussion.”

In a memorable assignment to practice public speaking, Roberts-Drogin challenged her students to highlight their strengths through a personal story. At first Nikolopoulos talked about finding creative ways to save money for her company, but the professor encouraged her to dig deeper. “I told them about taking over the family business after my father died—how hard I worked and how difficult it was,” Nikolopoulos recalled. “People got teary-eyed when they heard it. They all said, ‘That’s the story you should be telling.’” Today Nikolopoulos loves her job at NYPA, where she takes advantage of every opportunity to learn, grow and help others. They, in turn, continue to reward her with more opportunities—a real win-win.

And her mother? “She’s proud of me, but I think I surprised her,” she said. “In my 20s, I wasn’t focused. By age 28, I knew what I wanted, even though Mom didn’t see it the same way. But now she understands.” She paused, then continued, “I’m so grateful for the way my parents raised me. They got me where I am today.”

Eleni and dad pictureDinerEleni and dadEleni and her family