May 10, 2010 — When a high school senior is choosing a college, well-meaning people advise, “Find a place where you’re comfortable.”
Joey Katona had a different idea. Raised in a liberal Jewish home in Los Angeles, he thought the University of Virginia might offer something different.
“I came here because I figured I’d never live in the South, I’ll never live in a small town again, a medium-sized town,” he said. “I really wanted to be uncomfortable for a little while.”
Katona gave himself an added challenge: He pledged to help pay the college tuition of his Palestinian Arab friend, Omar Dreidi, whom he met at a summer camp in Maine for youth from conflict regions.
Flash forward four life-altering years. The challenge has been met; Katona and Dreidi are both graduating this month.
“Yeah, it’s been difficult,” Katona acknowledged. “But how do we get stronger? How do we get more interesting and smarter? Through challenges.":
The story of how Katona came to his commitment to his friend has been told before.
Growing up, Katona's family often traveled to the Holy Land – not only Jerusalem, but Ramallah as well, "because we wanted to see the other side," he said.
That open-mindedness also led to Katona attending Seeds of Peace, a camp in Maine where youth from clashing cultures come together in a mediated effort to find common ground.
The Jewish kid from L.A. and the Palestinian kid from the West Bank bonded when they roomed together during their second year at camp. Later, Katona and his family visited the Dreidis in Ramallah.
Katona soon learned that his friend had been accepted into Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., but couldn't afford to go. "It just didn't seem right to me that I was born here and he was born there and I got everything and he didn't," he recalled.
He decided to do something about it. He pledged to raise the tuition himself.
Dreidi told People magazine in September: "It was like somebody telling me, 'Your dream is going to come true.'"
Katona first believed he would need to raise about $11,000 per year. Earlham offered a half-scholarship; a Seeds of Peace scholarship fund would help; and Dreidi would contribute from his work-study money. But tuition rose, the Seeds of Peace money faltered in the recession and Dreidi's income covered only his living expenses.
So Katona needed to come up with more – a whole lot more. He recently ran the numbers in his ever-present laptop, and the total he's raised now tops $91,000 – with a little over $2,000 still to go. (To help, contact him at email@example.com or call 310-613-6268.)
After spending at least 10 hours a week on the project for the last four years, he definitely will not be pursuing a fundraising career, he said. Yet he loves to talk about the people he has met.
One experience stands out. A seventh-grade teacher in New Jersey used the People magazine story to teach cross-cultural tolerance, and e-mailed Katona letters from her pupils. "I started crying at my computer," Katona said. "It was the most humbling thing."
Katona asked to visit during an already-planned trip to New York. He expected to meet about 28 students; instead, the school hosted a banquet, with musical performances and a speech by the superintendent. Katona spoke to 400 students for an hour in the school's auditorium.
Katona's original plan was at once idealistic and unsurprising: He would learn Arabic and major in foreign affairs, and when he and Dreidi graduated, they would work together at a Middle East conflict-resolution think tank.
It hasn't quite worked out. Arabic was the first to go; it "brought my grades down and took all of my time," Katona said.
While he will still get his degree in politics and foreign affairs from the College of Arts & Sciences (with a minor in a leadership program offered through the McIntire School of Commerce), his outlook shifted, beginning with a study-abroad experience during this third year, which took him to Bangalore, India; Cape Town, South Africa, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
When he returned, he opted to focus on addressing injustice on a larger scale, taking classes on ethics and social issues.
Next month, he starts a job as a paralegal at a D.C. law firm, eventually hoping to combine a law degree with a master's in some area of social policy, perhaps education, he said.
His sense of injustice was triggered again this spring, when two friends, a white woman and an African woman, were subjected to racial taunting on the Corner. Katona and a classmate wrote a "call to action" in a student publication requesting that the University mandate anonymous racial bias testing for incoming students, followed up by dorm discussions. He's pitched the idea to University administrators.
"It's just opening kids' minds a little bit," he said. "Even if these kids don't ultimately care, a few more will – and a few more will, and a few more will, and that's how you change a prevailing culture, in my opinion."
Katona attended Dreidi's May 8 graduation. "Getting a degree is going to open a lot of doors for me," said Dreidi, a four-year member of Earlham's soccer team. While studying business and non-profit management, he's made great friendships with his classmates and his professors. "It has definitely been a phenomenal experience," he said.
Dreidi and Katona's friendship has evolved but endures. They talk on the phone several times a week.
"He always pushes me," Dreidi said. "He's recently been pushing me to apply to schools, to apply for jobs. He doesn't want me to miss an opportunity."
One such opportunity is a graduate program in sports management offered by Georgetown University that could reunite the friends in Washington.
Both insist they will always be close. "Joey is going to be one of my best friends for as long as I am alive," Dreidi said.
Katona is apparently not done challenging himself.
Last summer in Los Angeles, he tutored an undocumented high school student through a local non-profit organization. Smart and serious, she has designs on becoming a doctor. But because her undocumented status makes her ineligible for most financial aid, she is struggling to raise money for college.
Katona thinks he can live without some of his new salary.
"I'm not saying that $20,000 over four years isn’t a lot of money – it is – but my life is going to be the same without that money, and her life is going to be very different with that money," he said. "So why not give her a chance?"