Name: Stephen Damianos
Hometown: North Hampton, New Hampshire
Major: Majoring in political science and minoring in journalism
Activities: Founder of Penn Undergraduates for Refugee Empowerment (PURE), founder of the Refugee Employment Task Force, Sphinx Senior Society, Kite + Key, Perry World House Student Fellow, Transfer Student Organization
34th Street: Why did you decide to come to Penn?
Stephen Damianos: I actually didn't get into my top five schools when I applied to college, and was devastated. It felt like everyone around me was going where they wanted to go, and I was going where I had to go. I went to Hamilton College for a year, and tried to make the most of it, because I realized that going anywhere was such an amazing privilege because so many people don't even have that. But ultimately, it wasn't the right place for me—I knew after three weeks that I wanted to leave. I worked really hard to be able to come here, and I really wanted to go to a city, and I was really drawn to a lot of things Penn had to offer. It was just the most amazing decision I had ever made. There wasn't even one second where I looked back and thought that I should have gone somewhere else. Also, my best friend from home transferred here in the same year, and we’ve been roommates ever since, so that’s just been really incredible for me.
Street: Why did you decide to major in politics?
SD: I can't even go near numbers—I will start sweating and get anxious when I have to even calculate a tip when getting drinks or dinner. So that really quickly knocked out anything in math. I wanted to be PPE, but I realized there's an E in that, and that the E has math in it. And also I really wanted to make sure that what I was studying would have practical implications, and to be able to use it to affect some kind of change in the world. I felt like studying politics would allow me to do that.
Street: When did you realize that working on refugee issues was so vital?
SD: My family is Greek, and I've spent every summer in Greece. As I got older, I started watching how this island transformed from a tie to my culture and my ancestors into a country decimated by something they couldn't control, and by so much sadness and hurt and loss. And so there was a bit of a personal tie to it. It's frustrating to say that sometimes you don't act on something until it feels close to home, but that was part of it. Another part is that there are so many issues going on in the world right now, and I feel so helpless with them. Something like HIV, AIDS, or cancer—I don't know anything about science. I can't cure cancer. I can’t stop the war on Syria. I can't stop hunger. But I can teach someone how to read English. I can tell them their rights. I can empower them to get a job. I can write a resume with them. There are so many little things I can do to chip away at this giant problem, and I can mobilize people to do the same.
Street: Why did you decide to start PURE (Penn Undergraduates for Refugee Empowerment)?
SD: When I came to Penn there was no undergraduate organization that existed to empower refugees, which blew my mind, because approximately 900 refugees had re–settled in Philly that year alone. It felt like such an immense gap to me that students at Penn say that they're going to be future leaders of the world, but this is one of the most pressing issues of the world and yet we're doing nothing about it. So I started PURE and enlisted an amazing executive board, and we kind of just built it from scratch. Now we have a bunch of volunteers. We have translating, fundraising, advocacy events, movie screenings, and educational events. We play soccer with refugee kids once in a while, and we transit on active legal cases that have legal documents. We Skype into refugee camps and translate. We also presented at the United Nations twice, which is really cool.
Street: What was it like presenting at the UN?
SD: It was crazy. I presented at the United Nations my junior year and I spoke about the importance of student advocacy in refugee issues and the ways that we can mobilize universities and all of their resources to make maximum impact within this field. It was an out–of–body experience because there were thousands of people there, and everyone was just sitting there listening and caring. What was even cooler than being at the UN was being in a space where everyone wanted to make the world better and figure out how to make that happen.
Street: What did you do during this summer in Athens?
SD: This past summer I just showed up in Greece and was like "I'm ready and who needs me?" I went around to various NGOs until one felt like they could really utilize my skill set. I did a lot of employment work, so working one–on–one with refugees and writing resumes and CVs with them to help them gain employment. I did a lot of work to remove refugees who were forced into survival sex work from that situation or provided them with contraceptive[s] and information about how to be safe in that type of employment. I also did a lot of legal work, advising people on how to gain asylum in certain countries, safe access to travel routes, how to not get arrested, and writing letters to the police to remove people from detention. It was a hugely formative summer, but really difficult to come back from, because I came back from working with people who didn't even have a home to stay in. They slept in the streets, and they had only one shirt and no shoes, and I came back to Penn where people were complaining about their heating in the Radian. It was really difficult to experience that, and to recognize that I do that too—we all do that; it's part of being young and part of being privileged. It just forced me to consider what we have and what matters.
Street: Do you have any moments where your work felt really real or meaningful to you?
SD: I recently wrote my senior thesis in political science, studying refugee mobility and travel documents in Europe. I dedicated it to four refugees that I met in Greece, because these are people who have been forced to leave their countries and leave their homes. They have been beaten by the police and they've had to go in tiny boats over oceans. It felt like my work really had a meaning, and that it was for them. That was a very proud moment for me—when I was able to hand in my thesis and have their names on it. It was so important for me to include their names, because their names are so often excluded from spaces of privilege. To me, the hundred pages that I wrote meant nothing if I couldn't include their names and I couldn't bring them into this space, especially because many of them were in college when they became refugees, and they would ask me about my life. I would see such love for learning in their eyes and envy when I would speak about Penn, because there's nothing they wanted more than to go to school. Towards the end of the summer, I met with each refugee I was working with and asked them what they wanted most, and hopefully it was something that I could do. And I expected that they would say, "I want to go home" or "I want to go back to my country." All of them said, "I want to go to school." And it was so eye–opening to me that these people who have nothing, and who have been bombed out of their homelands didn't respond that they wanted peace, but that they wanted pencils. They wanted to learn, and they wanted a stable job. They wanted to feel of use and worthy. It just stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t breathe in that moment. And it made me come back to Penn so aware of the ways I need to use this degree, and the ways I need to soak in every second of this place. It's our world, but it's also a world that so many people can’t even come near.
Street: I think that’s all our official questions. Is there some part of you that we haven’t been able to capture here?
SD: I guess I am very much slotted in the human rights sphere, but I think there are so many other parts of me as well. I love movies. Every year, when the Oscar nominations come out, [I] watch every single nominated film, and I make a huge spreadsheet of predictions. I get really into it, and if my friends ask me if they can watch it with me I say no because I need total silence. I love travel. I'm really trying to go all over the world. It's a goal of mine to hit all seven continents. Eventually I want to be an elected official, so I'm just kind of all over the place. I'm really passionate about equality, about the LGBTQ+ community in particular. I love food—it's been a goal of mine to go to a new restaurant or bar in Philly every week. You’ll almost never see me in Smokes. It was my New Year's resolution to not go into Smokes in 2019, because we have this amazing city full of places, and I want to explore all of them before I go. The other thing is, I'm obsessed with socks. I have a collection of crazy socks [points to the ones he’s wearing now]. These aren't too crazy—they're just owls and moons. I really try to spice up every look with crazy socks that get people staring at them. I'm often in formal dress for various things, so usually I try to have the least matching socks in the outfit, and have it be like 'boom!' Everyone says that shoes make the man, but I think socks make the person. Oh, and another really important thing is that I'm a twin. My twin brother doesn't go here, but I always have to say that. We're fraternal, and he's my favorite person in the entire world, and I miss him every second.
Street: What is your favorite pair of socks?
SD: I have two favorite pairs of socks. One pair is just pineapples, and I think they're so excellent because pineapple is an underrated fruit. They make your mouth tingle, and they're all so pretty and they're great in smoothies, so I love having them in sock form. Another pair of socks has neon patterns, and it’s essentially what it’s like if you’re in a club: all of the lights go in different shapes, and it's just crazy neon everywhere. It's the kind of thing that you look at and it almost hurts if you look at it too much.
Street: What is your favorite movie?
SD: Slumdog Millionaire.
Street: What class would you recommend to all Penn students?
SD: I would recommend Political Communication with Kathleen Hall Jamieson if you have tough skin and are okay with crying in class.
Street: What is the best bar in Philly?
SD: Writer’s Block Rehab is the best bar in Philly because it's modeled after a library, and the menus are in books, and not a lot of Penn people go there, so it's a little getaway. It's okay, I'm leaving now, so everyone can get in on the secret.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn...
SD: Those who know how to answer this question, and those who don't.
Street: If you were a building on campus which one would you be?
SD: I would be Starbucks, because I feel like I give back to Penn a lot, but I'm also incredibly basic.
This interview has been edited and condensed.