When I saw the fire I got all goosebumps, because you remember everything that happened to the Armenians; everything we learned about.
SSAES 5th grader visiting the memorial at Dzidzernagapert (May 27, 2018)
This May, fifth grade students from St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School (SSAES) traveled to Armenia for two weeks, in what most will remember as the capstone of their Armenian school experience. This year’s trip marks the fifteenth consecutive year that SSAES has brought graduating students to Armenia to internalize their understanding of Armenian history by experiencing their ancestral homeland, to connect with contemporary Armenian students, and to contribute to the development of modern Armenia. “The fifth grade trip to Armenia has become a significant part of the SSAES experience for our families,” says Dgn. Houry Boyamian, Principal of SSAES. “Students look forward to it from the time they start Kindergarten.”
Students look forward to experiencing the cultural and religious sites that many have only seen in pictures: the Babig and Dadig monument in Artsakh, the cathedral of Etchmiadzin, the Datev monastery, the battle site of Sardarabad, the Genocide Memorial at Dzidzernagapert. “I think that waking up the first morning in Yerevan and seeing Mt. Ararat looming over them was one of the most memorable moments for each of my girls,” shared Heather Krafian, a former SSAES parent and co-founder of the annual SSAES Armenia trip. “The program cements an emotional bond between the students and their homeland starting on Day 1.” Dgn. Ardemis Megerdichian, Armenian language and culture teacher for SSAES elementary school, and the faculty leader for the SSAES Armenia trip each of the last 15 years, emphasizes the power of the shared experience on the students, as well: “Each student or parent has the opportunity to go to Armenia or Artsakh separately, but being on Armenian soil with one’s classmates has a totally different flavor.”
However, the program is not simply a tour of Armenian heritage sites. While in Yerevan, SSAES students participate in music, robotics, and other activities with local students at the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, an afternoon technology and recreation center. The fifth-grade students also partner with the Avedisian School on a project, including a Skype meeting prior to arrival. This year students from both schools worked with the Armenia Tree Project (ATP), a longtime partner of SSAES, on a joint environmental reforestation project which incorporated Abaran, the resting place of General Dro, in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the First Republic. At the elementary school in Shushi, Artsakh, the students performed songs, poems, and dances for each other as a symbol of diversity and union in Armenian culture.
The idea of Armenia was not always so tangible for SSAES students. In 2003 Megerdichian, was discussing modern Armenia with eight of her students. “We should go to Armenia!” one of the students declared. Megerdichian recalls answering, half in jest, “We should! We could stay at my house.” Fortunately, a pair of parents were up to the challenge of making a class trip to Armenia a reality. “It took a couple years to get off the ground,” Heather Krafian recalls. Along with co-founder Shari Ardahaljian, a former SSAES parent and Education Committee member who now resides in Armenia, Krafian shepherded the SSAES Armenia trip from an idea in 2002, fraught with parental worries and complicated by knots of international politics and logistics, to an actual program in 2004. “The first year we tried, not enough parents committed. Some were concerned about the security of their children. Others felt the cost was prohibitive.” After Ardahaljian relocated, Krista Aftandilian, another former SSAES parent and Co-Chair of the SSAES Education Committee, began to work alongside Krafian to help parents of each fifth grade class to prepare and fundraise for the trip.
In 2004, Armenia was barely a decade past the energy crisis and open war with Azerbaijan. From its inception, the SSAES Armenia trip has taken students to Artsakh, allowing participants to witness the transformation of both the town and the schools of Shushi. Megerdichian recalled of her first time taking SSAES students to Shushi: “The city was dark and brooding, but at the same time proud and free. The tank which stood at the entrance to the city served as a reminder of those brave heroes who liberated this historic Armenian land.” Adds Krafian, “The first years there was only one hotel in Shushi, and it was two families to one room. The local school looked nothing like the modern facility our students visit today.” During the last fifteen years the impact of SSAES partnership with Armenia Tree Project has also become visible, along the road from Yerevan to Stepankert, for example. In recent years, SSAES has begun a formal educational partnership with the Avedisian school in Yerevan that extends beyond the annual fifth grade visit.
While much has changed since the first SSAES Armenia trip in May 2004, the impact on SSAES students and parents has been consistently powerful. “One thing I hear from parents is how impressed they are with our students’ knowledge of Armenian history, which they talk about together when we are visiting sites, traveling on the bus, and sharing meals together,” Megerdichian shared. Another memory of hers, however, captures the flavor of the experiential impact. “We had spent a long time hiking up to Kantsasar Monastery. Several students were complaining; all of us were tired. When we finally reached the top, one of the boys grabbed my arm and declared, ‘Digin Ardemis! It is like heaven!’”
For many students, the SSAES Armenia trip sets the precedent for taking the leap to travel to Armenia, not just to vacation, but to engage with modern Armenia. Over time, many find ways to pair their passions with their homeland. For Krafian, this impact has been personal. Last year her daughter Nairi, a pre-veterinary student at Tufts University, founded Oknooshoon, a nonprofit which leverages animal therapy to improve the lives of people in Armenia, and correspondingly educates the people about animals to improve the lives of dogs in Armenia, as well. “For students formulating their Armenian identity in a diaspora, what could be more powerful than reframing their expectations of being Armenian, now that we have an independent country. Our students learn that Armenia is an opportunity, not just a dream.”
To follow student experiences on the SSAES Armenia trip, visit ssaes.org/blog
To sponsor SSAES students to go to Armenia in 2019, contact Principal Dgn. Houry Boyamian at email@example.com.