|Thursday, 4 June|| arm rus eng |
Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School and Community Center was solemnly opened in Yerevan on September 20, 1999. The school is operated by the Armenian Missionary Association of America through its subsidiary of the "Education Education Foundation". The students receive a comprehensive education, the best Christian and Armenian upbringing and enjoy the love and respect of teachers. All this contributes to the formation of a young person’s moral character. The school has been awarded a number of diplomas by the RA Ministry of Education and Science, Letters of Gratitude by the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the RA, as well as other diplomas and certificates.
“Da Facto” magazine conducted an interview with Edward Avedisian on his activities, the idea of founding the school and other issues.
The building was a birthday present for our mother
The gift of accepting is such a trivial thing when you measure it against what you give
We decided that it isn’t good to have children at a later age, as you become the “grandfather” of your own children
I was looking to see if I could walk in the shoes of my parents
The best of Armenia is really its people, especially the youth
-Mr. Avedisian, please, tell us about yourself. When and where were you born? Please tell us about your parents after whom the Avedisian School is named.
-I was born on July 23, 1937, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, USA. My parents were both from Kharpert, Western Armenia. They came here after the Genocide to make a life. Their emphasis was always on education. I think my first word was krtutyun (education). There were four of us. So, education was very important in our family. They didn’t have any money, but they always helped people by giving of their time and knowledge. People at that time were looking to find relatives that survived the Genocide. My mother could read and write in both Armenian and English. Every day there were letters coming from all over the world, as she was helping to find this or that person, looking for this name, that name. They were very generous not only for trying to help others to find their loved ones, but also for raising money for the Armenian community. They helped out many people who had nothing. My mother was a teacher in an Armenian school and taught children and newcomers. That was their way of life, and giving an education was very natural. Actually, by looking back, I understand that it was difficult for them. They gave their time. That’s the most precious gift of all, because once you give of your time, it’s gone and you can never get it back.
-When did the idea of building the Avedisian School come to your mind?
-Yes it was a birthday present for our mother. My father passed on in 1952 when I was 14 years old. The responsibility of our family was on her shoulders. This building was to honor our mother and father. When my mother’s 90th birthday anniversary was approaching we decided to organize a birthday party. She said that she didn’t need anything. At that time my niece Laurie and her sister Deborah came to me and said, “We want to organize a party for our grandma. We’ll do all the work. Will you sign all the checks? Will you pay the money?” So, I said, “You do the work, I’ll sign the checks.” We had over 100 people, some people she hadn’t seen for 30-40 years – old time friends, relatives and acquaintances. So, her present was a connection to her past education at the German Orphanage School in Kharpert. We founded the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School and then expanded it into a Community Center as well, because in all countries of the world, I believe, you have a school that opens at 9 o’clock and closes at 3 o’clock. Nothing happens after 3 o’clock. We have to have the community involved. There are young people, older folks and they could use after school activity and education, let them use the school building. There are lots of community activities. Maybe they want a chess tournament, a class I don’t know, let them come in, learn something, make friends. The communication starts from a community center. We want our students to get the best education we can give them and fully develop their minds. We want to inspire them, and we have no tuition charge here. Our students can continue their education at the American University of Armenia in the same way. The only requirement is to pass the exam to enter the university. If you don’t have the money, that’s ok, AUA will provide tuition. If you have absolutely nothing, there is a 100% scholarship. It is need blind. So we’ve built the whole process – from kindergarten right through the undergraduate AUA degree program. We’ll have the first undergraduate graduation at AUA next year and we’ll also have the first high school graduation from the Avedisian School. They can go on, get their Bachelor’s Degree there, and also study for a Master’s Degree there. And we hope in time there will also be a Doctoral Degree at AUA.
-How many students now study at the school?
-Over 400 students now study at the Avedisian School. They are all from the Malatia Sebastia administrative district. Everything is checked – who you are, where you are from, do you have parents or not. The first criteria of acceptance is the financial need. More attention is paid to those who are in need. It starts from those who have the least. There was a case when a woman was complaining that her children hadn’t been accepted. She has a good job, her husband runs a company. And what they are complaining about? Their complaint shouldn’t be with me, it should be with the government, because this shouldn’t be the only school offering high quality education, all schools should be at this level. If all the schools are like this there won’t be any complaints. We need 200 of these schools and we need to pay these teachers a professional salary. The teachers are the most important component of this country – first are the parents and second are the teachers.
-What or who was the source of your inspiration?
-When I went to college I had a scholarship. It didn’t cover everything, but it was pretty good. It was 1955, and tuition was $575 a year, and today it is $50,000, unbelievable, I could never go. I got the help of a professor and I got it elevated to full scholarship. So, when I got out of the school I was a musician playing in the Symphony Orchestras, in Ballet and Opera, playing with the best in the world. So, with this success I decided to go back to my teacher and pay him back. He was Italian. I went to him and said: “I want to pay you back.” He said: “What do you mean by saying you want to pay me back?” He started getting a little upset. I tried to pay him back and he was complaining. So we continued that argument for 10 minutes. He turned out to be a typical Italian, he was very upset, he turned red and said: “You want to pay me? You want to do something?” I said: “Yes, yes, yes!” He said then to do it for someone else, and I said: “Ok!”
That was an inspiration as well as I had experienced that line of giving in my family. When you get something, you say: “Wow!” This is the most fantastic miracle in the world that you get that kind of support, but today I say: “Don’t pay me back. Do it for someone else.” And I hope our students learn this lesson, because the seat they are sitting on today is going to be occupied by someone else tomorrow. They all come from the same background as you did, they have the same needs, don’t forget them. The feeling you get from helping someone is enormous. The gift of accepting is such a trivial thing when you measure it against what you give. They aren’t equal. There is a tremendous difference. Constructing the school was a great challenge for me to do the very best we could, get the very best people to work, the very best teachers to come here, to get the very best building, to get the very latest technology. I’ll put my money on those kids that have the least, because I’m one of those and I know that those kids have no other means. Either you learn, or you don’t. And if you do learn, you advance. For those who don’t have it, there is no other way. If you come from a well-to-do family, you think: “Maybe, I don’t want to learn much today.” I’ll take it easy. I don’t understand that way of thinking. I mean I understand it, but I don’t accept it. And you give this gift to those who have the least, because they will produce the very best results. I guarantee it. These kids will show you, all of them. And our teachers - they are committed. What happens when a child falls behind in class? You know everybody doesn’t learn at the same speed. Some learn fast, others – medium, but there are a few that fall behind. The teacher’s obligation is to take those students after class and get those students brought up to the rest of the class. You are the teacher and that’s your responsibility. So everybody has that same level of education. If it’s after school, you do it. If it’s once, you do it. If it’s twice, you do it. If the child is sick, you do it. That’s your job!
-You sponsored the project of the AUA new building. We know that the building is named after your older brother. Please tell us about the project.
-The project of the Paramaz Avedisian Building at AUA was a great development. I was fully involved in it, working with Mihran Agbabian and President Armenian. It was great to see, that we could give a gift like that to those who were coming through difficult times, as we still suffer from the Genocide today. And I told Mihran Agbabian: “Look, you have to have an undergraduate program here.” At that time we had only a Master’s degree at AUA. I said: “You add the undergraduate degree and I’ll put a building over there.” Why? Because I want this building to give a Western type of education – an honest education where students don’t pay bribes. When my older brother Paramaz Avedisian passed on we decided to name that building after him, because he was a marvelous student. He got only one B+ and took 4 out of 6 academic awards. It was funny that because the B+ he got was in a course that he knew absolutely perfect. I mean he was even able to teach the course, but got a lower mark because the professor wrote something on the board for a chemistry formula that wasn’t right and he said: “No, I’m sorry, that’s not correct. Look you go to the laboratory and you try, then see what you get.” My brother was right and the professor was wrong. So, his mark was B+, instead of an A. He went to complain but not for the mark, he just told the professor not to do that with any other student. Paramaz was a pharmacist. He was helping others. All of us in the family were brought up that way – there is no hesitation in helping, giving to others with whatever we can and whatever we have. And we always heard that word – krtutyun (education).
-You also helped to bring Nork Marash Cardiac Hospital to a U.S. hospital level.
-At the American University of Armenia we have a Center for Public Health and Research, and there is the Nork Marash Cardiac Hospital with Doctor Hrayr Hovakimyan. The hospital had no infrastructure. We spent three years and brought that hospital to the level of a U.S. hospital. At Haghtanak village we finished the construction of a school. They said: “Well, we’ll put your name on this school.” I said: “No, don’t put my name. Just put “Friends of AUA.” They’ll never remember my name, but the name of the AUA may mean something. Maybe the children will be inspired to go to AUA and get a good education. We have also the same thing at Tsitsernakaberd. We donated a cluster of trees there and it is written: “Donated by Friends of AUA”. Those are things we did for just setting an example for someone else. You’ll never see my name on anything. I guarantee it.
-When you speak about the Avedisian School, you always connect it to AUA. Can we assume that you see AUA as the continuation of the Avedisian School?
-Yes, because both AUA and Avedisian School have reached a level of excellence. We just don’t want that line to be broken. Maybe Avedisian Students want to go to another university, it’s ok, but I just want it to be possible for those who want to go there. It’s not question of being able to pay the tuition. You pass the examination and they’ll give you the tuition money – 100%. They’ll never turn anybody down, because of the money. So, we want to give the best. As I mentioned earlier, I told Mihran Agbabian: “You put an undergraduate program at AUA and I’ll put the building for it. You have the undergraduate program, I have this school and we will have a direct line for American education, Western education and critical thinking is the key. Communist education never had critical thinking. For AUA it’s critical thinking. You question the teacher, you question the professor, they question you too, asking what you think about this or that issue. The information you get is only the beginning of your thinking, and then you have to grow with that process of criticizing, critical thinking.
-As you don’t have your own children, it seems that you treat those children like your own…
-We got married very late – both of us for the first time. We decided that it isn’t good to have children at a later age. You become the “grandfather” of your own children. It’s better for us to support these children at school. That’ll bring satisfaction to us. We are happy and quite pleased with it. We’ll stand back and enjoy watching them grow in both mind and body. They are almost my children, because I want them to have the best education. I’m not the parent, but as I said, I’d stand back and let others take care of it. They don’t need to relate to me. Their success is all I need to hear about.
-Mr. Avedisian, we know that you are a retired clarinetist. Will you tell us about that period of your professional career?
-I was very fortunate to perform with the most outstanding artists in opera, ballet and symphony. I’ve been with the Boston Pops Orchestra. We travelled all over the world. We had our own plane. It was only for our Orchestra. Outside of the United States, I appeared as soloist with the Armenian State Philharmonic, the Armenian Radio and TV Orchestra and the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia, and I was also a visiting artist to Boston’s sister city of Hangzhou, China in 1998. I also taught at Boston University for ten years. I was back to the place from where it all started. With success came some finances, so I thought: “Let me try investing.” And it was at the right time. It was like going to the casino. You go there, you win, you put one down, you get one back. Next time you put two and get four. I was extremely fortunate. It came to the point that it was time to do something with my new-found success. I can’t describe what it means for me to do as they say these days to “give back or pay forward.” It gives me enormous pleasure.
-Besides Your philanthropic work, what are your current activities?
-There is a National Association of Armenian Studies and Research in Belmont, Massachusetts. They invited me to be on their Board of Directors and I’m quite pleased to join them. We have a very responsible, highly-educated board. We have speakers coming once a month. Paul Ignatius (100% Armenian), former USA Secretary of the Navy came and gave a lecture for us. Even though he is 95 years old, he is in tremendous condition – physically and intellectually. His mind is so sharp. So, this is the level of intellect there. I’m occupied with that association. And there is also another group – the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts. It has great collections of coins, history, books and artifacts of Armenian Culture.
-Mr. Avedisian, this year you were awarded the Ellis Island Medal. Please, tell us about that experience.
-Yes, this year I was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. When immigrants came over from the Genocide or from anywhere for that matter, they had to pass through Ellis Island in New York. They were inspected. They had health examinations, everything, everything... before they could enter the country. So, every year they honor 100 who are descendants of immigrants for not only succeeding here and what they have given back to the U.S., but also to the country of their ethnic heritage. I’m an American - what did I do for the U.S.? I’m an Armenian – what’ve I done for Armenia? And these are the main criteria. I guess, there are thousands of applications for this. I was both humbled and honored to receive the nomination. They selected only 4 speakers to speak at the award ceremony at Ellis Island, where the immigrants came, and I was one of the selected speakers. When I got up the first thing that I said was: “I’m accepting this award and honoring my parents. They were fortunate to come to this country after suffering the indignities of the Ottoman Empire in 1915.” I feel that I’ve been extremely fortunate. I didn’t have to face the embarrassment, the indignities of those terrible days of the Genocide, what people went through. Those times I never faced, so who am I to complain? We had parents that were concerned about us. While receiving the Ellis Island Medal, in the commemorative book I wrote that I was trying to follow my parents’ steps, follow their path to see if I could walk in their shoes. I don’t think I can accomplish that, but I will continue on that road until hopefully, I too can be, “like one who wraps the drapery of his couch around him and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
-You always speak about education. Do you think that the person’s success is in education, in being educated, in getting knowledge, in learning?
-Learning never finishes. It starts the day you are born and continues until the day you die. There are many ways of learning – not only learning at school, but visiting different people, having different experiences. You need to know how to deal with people, how to make friends, how to handle situations. When something goes wrong you don’t give up, you say: “What can I learn from that?” These all are the parts of education that never ever finish. The day your education finishes, you are finished. Forget about it. That’s why they call graduation “commencement.” What does commencement mean? Commencement means a beginning. It’s the beginning of the rest of your life. This is only the first education. The second education you have to provide through whatever you’ve learned, but that job never ever finishes. And that’s the joy of living – continuing education. You don’t have to call it education, but the experience of life. And then you begin to get an appreciation of what freedom is.
What is freedom? It’s not when you do anything you want at any time anytime. With freedom comes responsibility. And if you want freedom, you should be responsible. That responsibility is something you have to develop outside the class. The class teaches you facts, history, wonderful things, technology, medicine, etc. For example, I paid visits to Armenia 3-4 times a year when the construction works were being implemented. You know, you have to be responsible, making sure that everything is right. We were very fortunate. The workers in Armenia are talented and responsible. We had the best construction workers at the Avedisian School and the AUA building. They gave us the best of their abilities. We brought new techniques. They had never worked with those techniques, but we taught them and they learned. They were really professionals. Their personna, dedication and efforts are qualities I will always remember.
-What do you dream about?
-What I dream about is how we can improve things in Armenia and in the US. How we can have peace in the world. How we can deal with these Turks. There are Armenians in Istanbul. You know Hrant Dink. In our school we have two rooms named after him. I met Rakel Dink last year, when she was in the U.S. She is an absolutely marvelous, incredible person. What she’s been through, what she’s still fighting. I’m trying to help them in different ways. I was also planning to visit them, but Erdogan is now excited with the German Parliament’s adoption of the Armenian Genocide recognition resolution and he is making things very difficult. And I have to wait a little bit, but I’ll go there. I want Hrant Dink’s writings and history to be available worldwide on the Internet. So this is where Armenians are in a unique position as to where we are as a country. What do we have here? We have talent, brains and entrepreneurs, there is no question about that, and if you look at Information Technologies, this is a field where we excel. There is a huge push at AUA to increase the Information Technology programs. You get respect when you are on a leading edge of technology. This is important. Why? Because you got an education. Why? Because you are responsible, you created something that everybody can use, not only Armenians, but everyone in the world. This is the thing about freedom and responsibility. You have the freedom to create. How did you get the freedom? Critical thinking. Where did the critical thinking come from? Education. Armenia has the potential to be a paradise. Once this younger generation takes over, Armenia will begin to reach its full potential.
-What do you feel when you visit Armenia. Which is your most favorite place?
-The best of Armenia is really its people, especially its youth. They are the hope of the future. I dream about Armenia moving forward. I hope that the next generation will make this dream a reality. And it’s beginning to happen now. I saw the younger generation’s demonstration during the electric strike. I was here at that time. This was a lesson for the corrupted people to learn. This was the first one, and many, many more will come. Watch this upcoming generation, join them. They are different. I’m encouraged. They’ll change a lot of things and turn my dreams and theirs into a reality.
Interview by Shoghik Pahlevanyan