Special Stories from In-country Alumni

Talene Boodaghians (AVC ‘09)

With the linguistic essentials, “Ayo (Yes),” “Ha (Okay),” “Yes chem haskanum (I don’t understand),” and little else, I arrived in Armenia for the first time.  Though I didn’t know in 2009, my two month Birthright Armenia experience in Gyumri would significantly change the trajectory of my life. Armenia, its intensity, all of its emotional tumult, had me hooked. After returning to the United States for my final year as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, I enrolled in Western Armenian language classes.  A U.S. Department of State Fulbright grant then made it possible to pursue my research interests in psychology and devote considerable time to intensive Eastern Armenian study.  Now, I am back again, better equipped to communicate, this time as a 3rd-8th grade Ayb School English teacher.  Birthright Armenia’s generous and unremitting support throughout this journey, both in Armenia and stateside, during my volunteer service and thereafter, has been invaluable. Anchap shnorhagal em yes (I am immensely thankful).

Today, my American roots are visibly apparent in Tsakhkunk, a village just outside of Sevan and my home for the next year. With Ray-Bans, a backpack, and an adamant refusal to wear high heels, I walk to work each day, cordially greeting my neighbors and carefully avoiding their chickens. The reusable Carrefour bag in my hand, a briefcase of sorts, contains only the work necessities- beans and index cards, dried pasta and yarn, a solar powered flower and a red pen.  While the dirt path I follow to and from my classroom is direct, the path that brought me from New Jersey to Armenia several times over is admittedly more circuitous.

My meandering that began with Birthright in 2009 has finally led me through a door at the end of a narrow hallway labeled, “Miss Boodaghians’ Excellent English Class.” With song, dance, and pasta ABCs, it is certainly an eccentric space.  However, it is also one of mutual respect.  Language acquisition can sometimes be frustrating and embarrassing, but it is always ultimately rewarding. I know I am a better teacher of English because I am a student of Armenian. I understand the non-native speaker’s frustrations and joys because, in Armenia, I have daily linguistic frustrations and joys of my own. Perhaps most importantly, I want my 3rd-8th grade students in Tsakhkunk to become more assertive, more perceptive, and more engaged through English as I have through Armenian.

In some ways, my story is an unlikely narrative ending, for now, in an unassuming Armenian village an hour outside of Yerevan.  But when I meet the current Birthright volunteers and when I speak with friends and fellow alumni, there is an unlikely narrative preceding us all. For this reason, the work that Birthright has done and continues to do is all the more inspiring. As diasporans, we inhabit this strange sort of interstitial space between local and foreigner, and implications of this are complex and convoluted.  I only know for certain that we are, in small, maybe even nominal ways, both changing and being changed by this remarkable country.  It is a privilege to be doing so alongside others who are, every day, equally enthralled by this marvelous place.

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