I enrolled at Stockton University as a Nursing major. The degree required a number of humanities courses, one of which was "The Worlds of Homer," taught by Princeton alum Professor David Roessel *97. He approached me and asked if I would perform a piece he translated, the only catch was that the performances would be in Cyprus and Greece, and the trip would be fully funded. I had never been on an airplane, nor did I own a passport. This took some convincing on his part to say the least. Eventually, I agreed and landed in Greece on January 27th 2017 (the day Trump signed an executive order banning Muslims).
Aside from the performances, I also visited Byzantine Churches, visited museums, universities, and ancient sites in Athens and I stayed at the American Archaeological Research Institute in Cyprus (CAARI). The universities were filled with Greek students that studied African American culture, but had never met an African American. Rather than answering questions about a translation, I ended speaking about my life as an African American, and what that meant.
The trip absolutely changed my life. I returned to the US, changed my major to Classics and Archaeology, and became very interested in Byzantine Art.
I began painting the sites I visited. Professor Roessel became my advisor and I started to travel to Greece and Cyprus regularly. He introduced me to Nicoletta Demitreou, an Ethnomusicologist and visiting Fulbright scholar (and also a visiting fellow here at Princeton, who was well acquainted with Mikalis Koullepos, a cantor and icon painter. Mikalis offered to teach me the technique of icon painting with egg tempera, at his workshop in his backyard.
I managed to get a study abroad scholarship, I attended classes at European University Cyprus during the day and learned to paint in the evenings. We also spent time traveling to the painted churches of the Troodos Mountains. It is there that I truly developed a love for Byzantine Art. He taught me the entire process on a step by step basis. At the conclusion of my time on Cyprus, we had a joint exhibition: Holy Conversations.
After my time abroad, I soon realized there was a gap that I had almost fallen through, and I didn't want that to happen to other black and brown students.
David and I created the OpenGate Scholarship, which funds trips for minority students to travel to Greek Universities and speak about their experiences in the US. We started with Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. Because of the IAPP delegation we now have an agreement with the University of Athens.
This is the only program of its kind in the US. Because the model was based on my experiences, I was tasked with interviewing each Stockton University student and deciding who would receive the scholarship to travel to Greece in March 2023. I had 5 spaces and over 200 applications, it was heartbreaking. Our program, however, did get the attention of Nikki Kerameus, the Minister of Education in Greece. To strengthen educational ties with the US, the Ministry coordinated with the IIE to organize the IAPP delegation in 2019, in an effort to create more exchange agreements between Greek and American universities. The following year, COVID postponed the delegation, but we were finally able to travel to Greece in November 2022.
Having been 1 of only 2 students invited on the delegation, I felt it important to express my gratitude and appreciation to those who invited me. I painted two icons: one for the Ambassador Tsunis, and the other for President Sakellaropoulou. Due to security reasons, I was not able to hand the icon to the president, but I was able to hand the other icon to the ambassador at his residence. He flattered me by placing it on a mantle next to a photograph of his family. As a result of the trip in November, the program we started now has the potential to become a national program.
It has become my mission that there will be an OpenGate at every university in the US.
Watch Coates tell her story at the 2022 Pharos Summit: Greek-U.S. Collaboration in Higher Education.