Planting new roots: from Long Island to Armenia
Published: Tuesday July 03, 2012
While I was completing my master's degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, a professor had asked me what kind of leader I wanted to be. I had this recurring image that I wanted to grow to be like a tree--I wanted to be firmly rooted, but flexible; strong and sturdy, but not rigid. But, I wasn't a tree, not even close. I was still just a coconut, and I wasn't quite sure where to plant myself personally or professionally.
I wasn't looking for that place when I came to Armenia as a Birthright Armenia participant. I was simply looking to be somewhere besides a library for two months; to look for answers someplace else besides a book; and to have time to sleep, to think by myself, and to figure out where on earth I was going to plant my coconut. A summer on a mountaintop seemed like a good place to figure things out.
What brought me to a mountaintop in Armenia was a promise to my Bop, a promise I thought I should fulfill . Like any student in debt would, I Googled "Volunteer Work Going to Armenia for Free" and found Birthright Armenia.
Now, I'm not into organized activities, and I am an expert in making my life more difficult than it needs to be, but it was my last semester, and I was in the middle of midterms. I simply had no energy to be an anarchist, so I caved in... I wrote a one page application to Birthright Armenia, and they arranged everything else, including my homestay, volunteer opportunity, flight itinerary and health insurance.
In June of 2011, I started volunteering at Our Lady of Armenia summer camp in Tsaghkadzor, which serves orphans and vulnerable children. I taught sewing and English, played with the children, checked my email twice a week, neglected applying for jobs, enjoyed not understanding 95% of what was being said, and took lots of naps in between activities. It was precisely what I needed, but after a few weeks, I needed more. I reached out to Birthright Armenia and within 10 days, I was back in nerd mode, happily editing, writing, and conducting research for various proposals at the American University of Armenia (AUA) in Yerevan.
A day before I was supposed to catch my plane back to the States, I was offered a job at AUA as a consultant for accreditation and assessment. I called up the Country Director of Birthright Armenia, and he told me that I would be dumb to leave. Now, if you want to get someone from Harvard to do something (anything really), call them dumb; I changed my ticket. Two weeks later, I was asked to teach English at the new Ayb High School, a school that is closer to my vision of education than anything else I have seen or read about. Logically, I said no! I thought one job was enough. But, then I met the kids and the other teachers, and I've been saying yes to just about everything connected to developing Ayb since.
It's been almost a year since I came to Armenia as a volunteer, and, through Birthright Armenia I was connected not only to the best educational programs in Armenia but to some of the most exciting educational initiatives in the world. It has also connected me to good people, who challenge me intellectually and inspired me with their vision for Armenia, their faith in Armenians, and their patience for the long road ahead. Through these opportunities, Birthright Armenia helped me find the right environment to grow in. As a young professional, I have had the opportunity to do work that is solidly aligned with my values and practice the flexibility needed for realizing ambitious goals. I feel pretty damn lucky to have taken part in building capacities for teaching and learning in Armenia's two leading educational institutions. I feel honored that I have the opportunity to continue this work next year at AUA and at Ayb as one of the Vice Principals.
It seems that while I initially came to Armenia to learn about my father's roots, I've somehow planted some of my own here. To be honest, I'm not sure if, how, or when this story is supposed to end. But, it seems that for the time being my coconut has found a spot here; I can't think of a better place for it to grow.