Busy life is best life for Portland's Contesa Diaz-Nicolaidis
A couple years removed from attending St. Mary's Academy, and while studying at the University of Oregon, Contesa Diaz-Nicolaidis spent much of her time flying to and from Russia.
She had started working as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines at a young age — while still in college — and after some time working flights in Alaska out of Anchorage, Diaz-Nicolaidis got assigned the Russian routes aboard an McDonnell Douglas MD-80. At the time, it was pretty enjoyable, she said. It was five hours from Anchorage to Magadan, and then it was on to other cities, such as Vladivostok and St. Petersburg.
Then, it was a return to Eugene and classes.
"Life was easier back then, right? It's hard to commute, but it's a very common thing in our world. I was determined," said Diaz-Nicolaidis, who has been an Alaska Airlines flight attendant for 27 years and a devoted volunteer for Rose Festival for 14 years. In fact, she has just been elected Rose Festival Foundation president.
"We flew up and down the (east) coast of Russia, then had a layover in St. Petersburg. I got to do that exclusively for a while. We saw a lot on the ground (in Russia). Some flight attendants made lifelong friends there. It was like family. What I remember most was the relationships with families and people we met. I do remember experiencing a very different culture."
The flights "were always full, with mostly Europeans," and a lot of hunters and fishermen, she added.
Such has been just one part of the story of Diaz-Nicolaidis, who moved on to other roles with Alaska Airlines as a project manager and as a union representative, all the while still serving customers in the friendly skies.
Talk about a busy person. Diaz-Nicolaidis, 47, also has a husband (Cristo) and 14-year-old son (Andreas) — the family lives in Camas, Washington — to go with her jobs and work for the Rose Festival. Just last week it was announced that she was named Rose Festival Foundation president, in which she will serve at least one term as head of the board of directors.
She replaces Dave Todd as president, a position that entails leading the foundation and staff, helping with fundraising and "bringing joy to our community. What people see and remember are their experiences." Diaz-Nicolaidis joins new CEO Marilyn Clint in a Rose Festival leadership role.
The Rose Festival "was very much a part of my growing up" in Portland, Diaz-Nicolaidis said, as she remembers going to the parades after her father staked out spots on the route many times the night before the event. She also enjoyed the Rose Festival Court program — even though she tried to make the St. Mary's Academy court (and fell short), and also the then-Rose Festival junior court (and fell short).
"I built on those experiences," Diaz-Nicolaidis said. "I talk about that with young women, that it's a journey, it's not about the end result, it's what you learn in the process. I use it in a recruiting tool when I talk with the court."
It's pretty clear that much of what makes up Diaz-Nicolaidis can be traced back to her childhood. As she talks about her upbringing, the topic quickly turns to her grandmother, Maria Victoria Diaz.
After her father Alberto emigrated from Cuba during the country's revolution in 1959, he soon arranged for his parents to join him in the United States. It was a tough time in a country undergoing such radical changes to the dictatorship of Fidel Castro and communism. The Diaz family welcomed their move to another country, and settling in Portland.
Diaz-Nicolaidis said her grandmother worked two custodian/janitor jobs (the family picked her up at work at 10:30 p.m. every night), took the bus every day (when not being chauffeured by a granddaughter), faithfully enjoyed membership and mass at Holy Rosary Parish and eventually owned her home outright — the American dream realized.
Diaz-Nicolaidis greatly admired her grandmother for the undeniable work ethic.
"She really embraced and appreciated opportunities here," she said. "She taught me hard work. Thinking back, seeing her work so hard to make a new life here was a big part of where my strength comes from today."
It was a tight Cuban-American family — "the culture we lived was really rich," with Spanish being spoken at home. Eventually, Diaz-Nicolaidis, from Northeast Portland, attended St. Mary's Academy, and the community there also helped her grow.
"Telling the story does put into full view how impactful my grandma was to me," she said. "Important to her was education, and from mom and dad as well. She really pushed me to go to St. Mary's Academy, and she was willing to help pay for it."
While attending University of Oregon, she became a flight attendant during her junior year, based out of Anchorage. It was supposed to be a summer job, but it became a permanent job and Diaz-Nicolaidis pretty much commuted and studied from afar.
"One of the bellmen (in Seattle) watched over me," she said. "I sat down in the lobby and studied."
Her routes would be Alaska and Russia — and then the Lower 48 a couple years later.
"I do love life as a flight attendant," said Diaz-Nicolaidis, who, as time went by and tenure accumulated, had the opportunity to choose days worked and flights.
A "loyal" Alaska Airlines employee, she took on special projects, as a project manager for community marketing, sales, training, recruitment, brand activation and public relations. That included work with the Rose Festival, of which Alaska Airlines sponsors.
Also, "a lot of my time is spent on the union," meaning the AFA-CWA, as a local executive chair of the Employee Assistance Program. She leads a team of employees who assist with critical incidents, professional standards and employee resources to include substance abuse, mental health and traumatic and critical incident response.
"Lately, in the past 2-3 years, we've been really busy. With the airlines there has been a lot of change, and with us as a work group," Diaz-Nicolaidis said, alluding to issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions.
There is not much down time in her life. But, Diaz-Nicolaidis wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't think about it. It's maybe who I am. I feel good when I'm busy," she said. "For me the conscious decision I make every day is to make sure my family comes first, especially my son. And I fill time with what makes me feel good — just giving back in most everything I do."
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