~ By Taylor Blaire Mosher, student writer for the College of Arts and Humanities
This summer, the Armenian Studies Program sent 13 students and two professors to visit the country they have dedicated their studies to—Armenia. From May 24-June 9, the group of Fresno State students and faculty explored Armenia, visiting churches, museums, high-tech centers, universities and several other noteworthy sights across the country in an effort to immerse themselves in the Armenian culture and foster greater appreciation for the country’s rich heritage, history and traditions.
This was the eighth trip to Armenia sponsored by the Armenian Studies Program, the first of which was held in 1988.
“It is important for students to experience a culture through visiting the country where that culture began. In this case, Armenia,” said Barlow Der Mugrdechian, coordinator of the Armenian Studies Program and director of the Center for Armenian Studies, who accompanied the students on the trip. “It is a way for students to evaluate their own lives here in the United States. They can compare the way they live here with the way people live in a foreign country. I think students leave with an appreciation for the foreign culture and to then also appreciate their own cultures.”
Many students in attendance are of Armenian descent, but had never visited the country prior to the trip. One such student is David Safrazian, a fourth-year biology major with a minor in Armenian Studies. Safrazian also serves as treasurer for the Armenian Students Organization.
“I have always wanted to go to my ancestral motherland,” Safrazian said. “This trip was valuable to me, and others who went on this trip, because we could see where our families came from and observe the beauty and history of the country. Seeing where my ancestors once were and how they lived was a great experience.”
Highlights from the visit include a trip to the Mer Hooys-House of Hope, the U.S. Embassy and Etchmiadzin.
To learn more about some of the issues the Armenian people face, the group visited the Mer Hooys-House of Hope, a home for at-risk girls in Armenia who come from severely impoverished families. The organization works to develop a more promising and secure future for the young girls in their care.
While in Armenia, the Fresno State travelers visited the home three times to meet with the girls, all between the ages of 8 and 17. Their time together was spent playing card games, dodgeball, singing, dancing and sharing stories about their lives with one another, forming a strong bond between the two groups.
“My favorite moment was definitely visiting the girls’ home, Mer Hooys,” said Annie Rubio, a Fresno State student and active member of the Armenian Students Organization, who took part in the trip. “All of the girls there were so loving and excited to see us, and we enjoyed every moment spent with them. We all bonded with the girls very quickly and we were sad to leave them. Each time we went to see them, they prepared a new song or dance for us. They even taught us games so we could play with them. Even now, we want to help the organization through fundraisers or even just video calls with the girls.”
The Fresno State students also had the opportunity to meet with and interview Richard Mills, the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, at the U.S. Embassy. Mills spent time talking with the students about projects that the United States is involved in with Armenia. Students had an opportunity to ask the ambassador questions about his work and asked about many topics including Armenia-U.S. relations, the U.S. position on the Armenian genocide and current politics in Armenia.
The trip also included visits to several religious sites, including prominent churches, chapels and monasteries, as well as visits with various church leaders. One of the most prominent sites the group visited was the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, known as the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“One of my favorite moments from our trip took place while we were visiting churches,” Safrazian said. “While we were at Etchmiadzin, the patriarch of the church, the Catholicos, walked in and blessed me. This was a moment that will stay with me forever—being blessed by the Catholicos could be a once in a lifetime chance.”
When the two-week trip came to an end, the students and faculty prepared for roughly 20 hours of travel to return home, with Armenia being 11 hours ahead of the United States. After leaving Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, the local time was around 8 a.m. After a 17-hour flight with one connection, the group arrived in Los Angeles at 2 p.m. the same calendar day. The trip had been a whirlwind of history and culture, with visits to several sites each day.
“Armenia was the perfect classroom,” Rubio said. “No matter how much you study or read about the country, nothing is as impactful as seeing it in person. Seeing all the monasteries and historic sights was definitely eye-opening, especially for those of us who were there for the first time.”
The Armenian Studies Program will continue to send students to Armenia, organizing a trip every two to three years, Der Mugrdechian said.
The group shared its reflections of some of the most memorable moments from their trip during the “Armenian Summer Study Program 2017: Reflections” lecture event held Oct. 24, in the University Business Center. They discussed the lasting impact of the summer study trip and shared photographs and videos from their time in Armenia.