Photo: Fresno State President Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval posing with college officials and winners at the Armenian Studies Banquet
The mood was jovial as students, educators, and community members gathered at the Fort Washington Country Club for the 34th Annual Armenian Studies Program Banquet on Sunday, March 20 – the first time the event happened in person in three years. The 32nd banquet was canceled due to COVID-19 days before the scheduled event. The 33rd annual event was a drive-through affair like so many birthdays, and graduation parties had been during the darkest days of the pandemic.
While people have emerged from their lockdowns and reengaging in their communities, this event felt like the old times. Chatter, laughter, and handshakes filled the banquet hall. The packed house gathered to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of the Armenian Studies Program and minors in the program, scholarship recipients, and graduating seniors.
The event began with the invocation from Rev. Fr. Gomidas Zohrabian, Pastor of the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Fowler, California.
As dinner was served, Prof. Barlow DerMugrdechian welcomed everyone to the banquet and recognized many special guests in the audience, including Dr. Dennis Papazian, former head of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, and his wife, Dr. Mary Papazian; Avag Simonyan, Renaissance Cultural and Intellectual Foundation project manager, who was visiting from Armenia; Berj Apkarian, honorary consul for the Republic of Armenia in Fresno; Sal Quintero, District 3 Fresno County supervisor and his wife Hope; Paul Dictos, Fresno County assessor; Rev. Fr. Ashod Khachadourian, Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, Rev. Fr. Gomidas Zohrabian, St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church; Honorable Marvin Baxter, retired associate justice of the Supreme Court of California and Honorable Charles S. Poochigian associate justice of the California Court of Appeals.
DerMugrdechian noted the more than $88,000 in scholarships awarded to 50 students in this academic year. He said nine students are graduating this academic year with a minor in Armenian Studies, and 30 students are currently enrolled as minors – an all-time high for the program.
“The key to that student success has been scholarships. Just in the past five years, the Armenian Studies Program has had ten new scholarship funds established,” said DerMugrdechian. “That brings our total of named scholarships to 34.”
Since the beginning of the Armenian Studies Program at Fresno State, more than 12,000 students have taken courses in the program, and 144 students have graduated with minor degrees.
“This is fantastic! This [banquet] has always been the highlight of the academic year, to see everybody, to celebrate our students who are the heart of our program and the heart of our university,” said Dr. Sergio La Porta, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and the Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies. “I am certain that the future of Armenian and Armenian Studies is bright. And I’m certain of that because of all the people who are here this evening.”
Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Dr. Honora Chapman, agreed as she spoke to the crowd and acknowledged the program’s impact beyond the Armenian community.
“One does not need to be Armenian to appreciate the historical importance and to understand why it is so vital that we continue to support cultural, historical and linguistic studies on our campus and in our country. This program is the best in the country thanks to the amazing professors: Professor Barlow Der Mugrdechian, Dr. Hagop Ohanessian and Dr. Sergio La Porta.”
Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval recalled growing up on Fowler and walking past Saint Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church on his way to school. He began to appreciate the Armenian people, culture and food.
“Based on my friendships, I learned that your ancestors overcame a tragic history, and there was a time in which you felt lost and completely dispossessed. And here is the greatest lesson you taught me, and you taught humanity as well: before adversity, the community comes together and affirms its core value of faith and family,” said Jiménez-Sandoval.
His time at Fresno State deepened his admiration for the Armenian community and the Armenian Studies Program.
“Our Armenian Studies program sets the gold standard for the field the world over. It is the crowning jewel of Fresno State.”
The students agreed. Michael Mazman, who is majoring in economics, expressed his thanks for elevating his college experience.
“Prof. Barlow DerMugrdechian and Dr. Hagop Ohanessian welcomed me into the program immediately, and I have them to thank for the position that I’m in today,” said Mazman. “Pursuing a minor in Armenian Studies has absolutely been an integral part of my college experience. I really can’t express how lucky I feel to be able to learn Armenian history and language every day in the classroom. This is certainly not a curriculum you can get at any university. This is one of the most active undergraduate Armenian Studies programs in the country. I’m extremely proud to be a part of this community.”
Biology major and Armenian Studies minor Suzanna Ekmekchyan spoke of her life-changing study abroad experience visiting Armenia in 2019.
“Prof. Barlow gave me the first opportunity to visit our homeland and experience it in a way that I wish everyone to experience,” Ekmekchyan said. “The way he planned out every moment of the trip to be unique and exciting, and seeing so many different sites with learning opportunities that made connections to topics that we learned about in class – it was something that I will forever be thankful for.”
Of course, every speaker thanked the donors who made this robust program possible.
Every year, alumnus, former Fresno State Top Dog award winner and Armenian Studies Program donor James (The Popcorn Man) Melikian invites friends to his Los Angeles home to enjoy cognac and cigars for a private fundraiser.
“We’ve made sure that every dollar that we raise goes to the scholarship,” said Melikian. “There was only one problem. There were some members of the brotherhood who felt this scholarship should go to Cal State Northridge, USC, UCLA, et cetera. And I said, ‘That’s not going to happen. This is going to Fresno State.’”
Melikian, who also supports other programs within the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State, said his love of the university drives his philanthropy. He looks forward to supporting students in the years to come with the James L. Melikian and L.A. Brothers Scholarship.
Melikian’s scholarship, and the 33 other named scholarships, create a lasting and life-changing impact on students’ lives.
Perhaps Ekmekchyan said it best, “I am also grateful to all the donors and supporters of this program because, with your generosity to the Armenian Studies Program, all of those scholarships are able to support the educational journey of so many students just like myself.”