The National Union of Greek Australian Students (NUGAS) turns 40 this year, and like most things middle-aged, it’s answering a crisis of identity.

“The debate’s been going on for at least 40 years,” former NUGAS president and life member Peter Jasonides tells Neos Kosmos.

“People have always said, ‘well NUGAS is just a social organisation’.”

Mr Jasonides, the national convenor of the Australian Hellenic Council, first joined NUGAS in 1980. While he made many long-lasting friendships, he also says the organisation has played an important political role.

He remembers NUGAS being very active when the Hawke government first introduced university fees.

“The Australian Union of Students had disbanded and it was up to NUGAS to take the call,” he says.

With the assistance of Democrats leader Don Chipp, NUGAS submitted a petition which was read out in Federal Parliament.

“We were proactive about something most students were very passionate about,” Mr Jasonides recalls.

He says NUGAS continues to play an important role in lobbying for issues that affect Greek students, including lobbying for Modern Greek to be included in the National Curriculum.

But he says a lot has changed since NUGAS was born 40 years ago, as an informal alliance between Greek student societies in universities in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

Now NUGAS has over 5000 members from Greek student societies around the country.

And the current national secretary is Mr Jasonides’ daughter, Natolie. The physiotherapy student says she’s grown up hearing all about NUGAS from her father and she joined in 2008, her first year at university.

“The responsibility of NUGAS has changed over the years,” she says.

“In the ’80s it was more about fighting for students’ rights, but with us it’s more about preserving our cultural identity and getting together.”

While Greek Australian students are much more assimilated into universities than they were in the 1960s, Mr Jasonides says social events continue to be important.

He’s organising the upcoming 40th anniversary NUGAS ball, along with Peter Adrianopoulos, who was a member of NUGAS between 1984 and 1991.

Mr Adrianopoulos, who is now the community operations manager for the Greek Orthodox Community of Oakleigh and District, says NUGAS has helped shape generations of community leaders.

Former Senator Nick Bolkus, Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria President Bill Papastergiades, and Labor MP John Pandazopoulos are all past NUGAS members.

And Mr Adrianopoulos said NUGAS’ diverse identity isn’t a crisis at all – its diversity is what helps it maintain such a strong membership.

“Some people like the social function, others like the academic side, others were passionate about writing about issues,” he says.

“That was the thing: NUGAS gave the opportunities for people to express themselves in different ways.

“Everybody was welcome to be a part of it, because people have different skills and different passions and NUGAS tried to get people active in the communities”

Mr Jasonides’ daughter Natolie is now the NUGAS communications officer, and he says the sense of continuity is very important.

“NUGAS happens to be one of the oldest if not the oldest community based organisation,” he said.

“That is a major achievement, and it’s a major achievement I think the whole community’s very proud of.”