On Tuesday, June 7, 2011, I was afforded the privileged opportunity to speak with Greek-American Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas. Ms. Simotas works in the 36th Assembly District in Astoria, Queens, and is the first Greek-American woman to be elected to office in New York.
Regarding her Greek heritage, Ms. Simotas remarks, “Both of my parents are from Kefallonia. All of my extended family is from Kefallonia. My husband is from Karpenisi. My parents brought me to this country when I was six months old, and they moved to Astoria, where there is a very large Greek-American population. I was very fortunate to grow up in a community with strong Hellenic cultural roots. Personally, I am very proud to be of Greek-American origin – we have a very rich history. I use every opportunity I have to talk about my Greek roots. In these difficult times for the country of Greece, it’s important that people in high positions that are able to discuss how wonderful the country is – and how wonderful the people are – take every opportunity to do so.”
Ms. Simotas’ favorite aspect of Greek culture is the people. “This is something that I hear constantly praised from a lot of my colleagues when they visit Greece,” she says. “We have ‘filoxenia,’ where we open our hearts and our homes to other people. They are so friendly, nice, and generous. By nature, as a culture, we are very giving. We give to our Church, we give to good causes, and we give to other people.”
Ms. Simotas’ biggest influences in life are her parents. “Both of my parents came here. They had elementary school education and were able to immigrate to this country. They worked very hard and opened up a small business. Through that, they were able to purchase a home and educate their children. I am still in awe of their hard work ethic today. They instilled that work ethic in me. That’s why I was able to reach the position that I am, because I worked hard. I never made any excuses, and worked with my colleagues in order to get ahead. I am very proud that having a hard work ethic was stressed in my life,” Ms. Simotas adds.
On her educational background, Ms. Simotas says: “I went to the local New York City public schools in Astoria. From there, I went to Fordham University at Lincoln Center, on scholarship. After I spent four years there, I earned a degree in economics and philosophy and completed a business administration program. After I graduated in 1999, I went to Fordham Law School, which I completed in 2002.”
On her decision to pursue a career in the fields of law and politics, Ms. Simotas remarks, “I was always interested in law. It’s a great career if you want to help people, and if you want to solve people’s problems. Clients come to an attorney with a particular problem, and you have to have the creativity to solve that problem. That’s a skill you need to have, especially as a litigator, which I was.”
“As a legislator, it’s the same idea. You are basically solving problems in our laws, either by writing a new law to amend the previous law, or writing a new law to address a problem or social injustice. I went into law and politics because I want to help people. I have been able to develop certain skills of critical thinking and advocating for people. I am able to use both of those skill sets in law and in politics. ”
With regards to the hardest aspect of her job as Assemblywoman, Ms. Simotas notes that it’s the schedule. “It’s very grueling, especially when we are in session. It takes a lot of time to drive to Albany, but I enjoy it so much, because I work with some very intelligent colleagues. That’s the hardest part since I am away from home. Being an Assemblyperson, you have two roles: you have to be legislating in Albany, our capital, and you also have to work in your district on behalf of your constituents. I spend July through December in the district office. In the first six months, the schedule is a little bit difficult.”
On her plans for the future, Ms. Simotas says that “my immediate plans are to work very hard helping my fellow New Yorkers – whether they live in Astoria or anywhere else – and making sure that my office is there for them. The most important aspect of any politician’s job is to make sure that they are serving the people that elected them. That’s really what I am most focused on right now.”
Of her proudest professional accomplishments, Ms. Simotas says, “I was very happy when I got elected. It was a big stepping stone for me, since it put me in a position where I can help a lot of people. My election was certainly a great milestone, as well as the time that I spent working in private practice. I was able to do a lot working with people with physical disabilities, and making sure when they were discriminated against, those cases were prosecuted.”
On May 14, 2011, Ms. Aravella Simotas served as a panelist for the Hellenic Times Scholarship Fund (HTSF) “Law and Politics” morning workshop. “That was absolutely fantastic! I was a 1996 Scholarship recipient. Since then, I have kept strong ties with the organization. It’s not just about raising money and giving scholarships to these students. It’s about making sure that they have the resources needed to move ahead in their careers, and have a network of individuals that they can go to. This is the first year we did these types of workshops. They were a tremendous success. The fact that I helped organize them and was a panelist was a big honor.”
For the Greek-American youth who wish to pursue a career in the field of law or politics, Ms. Simotas advises, “both careers demand a few things: patience, a hard work ethic, and a commitment to success. You have to commit time into developing yourself as a politician or as a lawyer. With respect to the law, there are many different careers that you can pursue. It’s a very versatile degree, but in order to obtain it, you have to work really hard: you have to go to law school for three years and take a bar exam. It’s a challenging educational pursuit, but it certainly can be done. For students who are interested in law school, I suggest they sit down and think about it, since it can be very costly. If that is something they want to do, study hard and talk to as many lawyers and non-lawyers who have law degrees as they can.”
Ms. Simotas continues, “with regard to politics, it’s about building relationships and making sure you help others. When the time comes, they can help you. You certainly need support whenever you decide to run for office. It’s something you need to lay the foundation for. If you are interested in politics, get active in your community groups, by getting to know the people that are going to elect you. Politics is about building bridges and it’s about working with other people to accomplish goals. It’s about compromising.”
In her spare time, the Greek-American Assemblywoman is very active in snowboarding in the winter and beach activities such as scuba diving in the summer.
For Ms. Aravella Simotas, the word success means “being true to your principles, ensuring that you have character and that you never go back on your word, being close to your family, and doing the right thing always. Being very honest and truthful with yourself and your family, and having friends around you. Success is the most important aspect of a person’s life that keeps you balanced.”
Regarding the Greek-American community, Ms. Simotas states: “the Greek-American community is very strong within the United States and within New York. We have a wonderful parade each year, and we raise millions of dollars each year for our local churches. We have a lot of power. What I would like to see is more Greek-American organizations working together to promote Hellenic causes. I would like to see one Cultural Center, or one Greek organization that everybody is a part of. That’s the way we’re going to move ahead.”
Ms. Simotas concludes, “I hope the Greek-American youth in New York and throughout the country understand that in this critical time for our country where our parents and ancestors are from, to continue to be proud of who we are and where we came from. The best way to help Greece is to succeed here in America, and show that we did, because we grew up with the values that our parents brought over from Greece. Greece will be like the phoenix: it will rise out of the ashes, and will be prosperous again. For those of us in the United States, we should strive to become a shining example of what success can be. Sometimes we encounter some difficulties, but it’s in our blood to work very hard, and to keep at it to overcome all of our challenges.”
Kostas Demopoulous, who was a 2011 recipient of the prestigious Hellenic Times Scholarship, remarks “Ms. Aravella Simotas is an extremely warm person and has done an amazing job orchestrating the HTSF GALA event. Her energized workshop brought to light some key issues on staying true to your roots that Greek Americans and people from any culture or ethnic background can benefit from. She was exceptionally open to questions, and as an aspiring Greek-American law student, she furnished me with some very useful advice for my future endeavors.”