Cristian Cojiță is jovial and likes doing things thoroughly. When he laughs, he chuckles. When he’s happy, he speaks loudly.
He knows all sorts of things; how to change the printer’s toner cartridge, how to fit a GPS to a bicycle, and more complicated things like the inner workings of code and software.
His colleagues have nicknamed him Cojito (pronounced in Spanish) due to his candid manner of speaking and the way he wears his heart on his sleeve.
At 36, Cristi’s life story seems to be straight out of the Old Testament (or a Charles Dickens novel). Twenty years ago, when he was nothing more than a timid teenager from small-town Romania, he met a man who changed his life, and perhaps not only his life. It’s quite likely this man, without being aware of it, initiated a string of gratitude and inspired events for many other seemingly lost causes.
Cristian Cojiță went to high school in Bârlad, Vaslui County, where he studied information technology. He comes from a large family with six siblings whose parents struggled to feed and clothe them.
“As a child I only wore second-hand clothing. I think the first time I ever bought something new was in Cluj, when I was already in university”, Cristi says. Even if times were hard, his parents had managed to scrounge up enough money to purchase a three room apartment in the city, right before he started high school.
As in the fairy tales of old, the father told his three sons: “From here on out, my boys, you’re going to have to take care of yourselves and pay the bills, because this is the most I can offer you.”
While they studied, each brother took a part-time job. Cristi was in the ninth grade. He began to work at a printer’s where he created various forms. Then he worked at a radio station during a period when jingles were fashionable and they needed somebody who could help with audio editing.
The Cojiță brothers also took in a carpenter who worked in construction to help with utility bills.
And that’s how they spent high school.
“I passed the baccalaureate exam but didn’t apply for university. Didn’t even consider it. I knew I couldn’t support myself financially. In my graduating class, only 5 or 6 colleagues went on to post-secondary studies, the rest had to make do with their high school diploma”.
One of Cristi’s brothers joined the seminary, which ensured the students’ meals and accommodation, but Cristi didn’t hear the call to priesthood.
As a teenager in a small town in Romania’s poorest county, he only had a couple of options: at the tail-end of the nineties, Romanians were leaving the country in droves to find work abroad.
“Most of the people I knew were leaving, that was the trend. Even three of my brothers left, all of them found unqualified labor; one in construction, one’s a mechanic, another cleans in hotels” says Cristi. The most viable option, it seemed to him, once he’d had some time to think about life and the future, was to stay in Bârlad and work in retail.
His mind now made up, Cristian Cojiță found employment with a company that sold anything and everything, from soap to washing machines. At the time POS systems weren’t mandatory in stores, so the business owner needed a system through which he could keep track of inventory and manage the accounting for hundreds of products.
“The owner contacted a company in Iași, who provided the initial system, but then I got involved with maintenance and started developing solutions on top of it. And that was how I moved from the sales floor to an office. I was managing the accounting, loading invoices into the system, setting prices, stuff like that.”
The company’s owner, Nea Gică (Mr. Gică), was a stingy Moldovan. Before the Revolution, he’d been managing a state-run cooperative. That’s probably where he’d learned to hoard every penny.
He was very stingy.
So stingy that he didn’t go on vacation because he didn’t want to spend money. So stingy that his wife had to go behind his back to send money to their daughter, who was a university student in Cluj.
Nea Gică would never give money away of his own will; he was too focused on piling it up.
One day, out of the blue, Mr. Scrooge of Bârlad called Cristi in the office and said to him:
– Tell me, do you still know your math?
“’Why?’ I asked him. ‘So you can go to college!’ he told me. He didn’t say any of this in a friendly manner as he was not at all a friendly man. He was cold and gruff with people.”
Nea Gică had asked his daughter to sign him up for the admission exam at the Cluj Polytechnic University. Then he told his employee not to come in to work, but to stay home and study.
“Even if I passed I knew that I wouldn’t have the money to go to University, but I told myself I could at least visit Cluj on his money, cross the Carpathians for the first time and see Transylvania. That’s the kind of stuff I was thinking about. So I went on the trip and took the exam.”
After the admission trip to Cluj, Cristi came back home to resume his duties in the busy room, full of papers, where he kept track of the detergent on order or the number of beer cases sold.
After a week, Nea Gică called him into the office again: he’d passed his university entrance exam.
“I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was glad I’d made it in. On the other hand, I was feeling gloomy: What was the use of passing the exam if I didn’t even have the money to take another trip to Cluj, let alone to attend university there?”
Then, Nea Gică turned his world upside down.
He decided to keep him employed, 450 kilometers from home.
“He paid my monthly salary the whole time I was in University. It was enough that I still had some money left over after paying for meals and housing. When I left Bârlad I made sure to have my social security and health insurance in order, in case something happened to me so far from home. Before this, while working for Nea Gică, I didn’t have any social security coverage.”
When he thinks back to those days, Cristi finds it difficult to explain without stumbling over the words, even now he seems slightly incredulous, and his eyes well up.
Every vacation during the course of his university years, Cristi went back to Bârlad to work for Nea Gică. The man hadn’t asked him, but Cristi felt it was the right thing to do.
Back home, the hardest thing for Cristi was to see his parents suffer. They were simple people, and they’d developed a deep respect for Nea Gică because he’d saved their son. For Cristi, however, every meeting with them reopened an old wound.
“I could see that they were desperate to help me out in some way, but they didn’t have the means to do anything. Sometimes I’d avoid the trip home; I didn’t want to put them in that situation, where they felt so helpless…”
In the dorms in Cluj, he only ate zacuscă from home, a traditional vegetable spread. Now he can’t even look at it anymore.
The mother of a roommate made sure there was something for Cristi in each package of food she sent off to her son. Another colleague’s mother was doing the same thing.
“They knew I was there alone and that I didn’t have much.”
That’s people for you.
The faculty Nea Gică had signed him up for was actually a technical college within the jurisdiction of the Technical University. After three years in Cluj, Cristian Cojiță returned home, determined to repay his benefactor with another three years of labor.
But again, Nea Gică told him: “What are you going to do here? Go on and find your purpose in life.”
So he put him through another three years at the university; once again, without asking for anything in return.
“After many years, I asked him why he’d done so much for me. But he didn’t know what to tell me. He basically said – ‘Sometimes in life you do things that you don’t really want to do, even if it’s good to do them’. It is as if he’d had a mission to save me. He got me out of a place where the chances I’d make anything out of my life were virtually zero.” (Cristian Cojiță)
Cristi got married in 2004 and has two girls, Doroteea (7 years old) and Ana (5 years old). He is trying to teach them a valuable lesson: “If you’ve ever received help, open up your eyes and, in turn, do something for others. Remember where you came from, and don’t ever be ashamed of it.“
“When I took the girls to Moldova, I wanted them to see that ‘normal’ is not what they see at home; a beautiful apartment, a car, nice clothes. Normal is inhabited by many people with potential, but who might be stuck simply because they don’t have the money to get out.”
In turn, Cristi takes Nea Gică’s model a step further. ‘Stingy’, like his old boss, he helps kids who come from poor families.
But that’s not something he wants to talk about.