Passage to Yerevan: A Fulbright Scholar in Armenia
After working for twenty-four years as an elementary school teacher, elementary school principal, school district superintendent and professor, I was afforded the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave. I was excited at the thought of taking time to recharge and seek fresh perspectives on my teaching. As a seasoned traveler whose research and desires have taken me to Japan, France and India, I wanted to work and live in a part of the world I had never been before and about which I knew very little. A Fulbright teaching award seemed like that opportunity. As summer approaches, I want to share a little bit of my sabbatical experience in Armenia hoping that you, also, will find fresh perspectives on teaching and learning during your break.
Not an American tourist destination or vacation spot and isolated from much of the world by language, culture, and closed borders to the west and the east, Armenia is a country the size of the State of Maryland. Surrounded by Iran, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, two million people live in the country, and of those one million live in the city of Yerevan. Yerevan was established in 782 BC, 29 years earlier than Rome, and is now Armenia’s capital. Nestled in a semi-circle of hills descending to the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is made up of broad avenues, modest dwellings, offices, shops, honking horns and masses of people. Over run and over run again, Armenia was once a large country covering most of the local region, in its 21st Century formation it has yet to emerge as a real presence in the global village. Modernity has been slow to come to Armenia with its old Soviet power grids, waterlines and phone lines forming the base of Yerevan’s infrastructure. A week with consistent electricity is considered a delight and daily hot water is a luxury.
After flying into a small airport just outside of Yerevan, entering the city in the dark disguised the dusty streets, cratered sidewalks and made it unclear that monuments and buildings there can decay without complete impunity. Yerevan is best understood in the morning when the light glistens off of the many buildings built of pink tufa stone. The tufa stone was the idea of Alexander Tumanyan, an Armenian architect, who created a general plan for Yerevan in 1924. New apartment buildings have jutted up in the city, mostly chalky pink blocks that are neither graceful nor harsh. The Armenian alphabet is Syriac and street signs are written in Armenian and Russian, obtuse for a person who reads, nor speaks either. Since few spoke English, pantomime and laughter were my main languages in shops and restaurants around town.
Yerevan in August was a teeming haze of pollution that sat atop the city as the temperature rose and Mount Ararat towered in the distance. The sky was a faded blue. There I was, people all around, on sidewalks, in the parks, on corners playing chess, and playing with children everywhere. I was struck by the fact that at five foot four inches I was tall and bigger than most men who passed me on the street. Armenians enjoy conversation, hospitality and sitting in summer sidewalk cafes until the early morning hours. I did not fully understand the semi arid continental climate that allowed for hot summers and snowy winters, but the residents had learned to stay outside and enjoy the heat before the cold winter fell.
Time slowed down in Yerevan. No one around me was scurrying or trying to attend to pressing business. Yerevan does not have a commuting culture and days are slow to start. As time passed, I too scurried less and noticed I remembered more – a loaf of bread, the newspaper, and the faces of people passing by. When a friend came to visit from the United States she wanted a cup of coffee at a cafe early in the morning, and was disappointed to find it impossible.
After six weeks of navigating the city, I started teaching at Yerevan State Linguistic University. The university is named for Valery Brusov, a Russian poet and writer, who translated many major works of literature into Armenian. I was assigned to teach in a master’s degree program UNESCO had founded a year prior in educational management and planning, the only program of its kind in the country. The goal of the program is to prepare students to lead elementary, middle or high schools throughout the country. I do comparable work at Mills, where I direct the administrative credential and master’s degree in educational leadership programs, so I felt well qualified to teach students in Armenia aspiring to lead schools.
The university sits on the corner of Tumanyan Street in downtown Yerevan. Surrounded by small shops and markets it is a large, three story, pink building that is in desperate need of repair. The atmosphere inside is more like an American high school than a university. The school enrolls mostly women, because it is socially acceptable for them to study foreign languages. After graduating many become tour guides for the few French, German or Russian tourists or they may work in souvenir shops where their proficiency in languages can be used. Adding to the aura of it being more like a high school than a university, there were constant giggles, clicking high heels and the use of lipstick was ubiquitous.
I taught a course titled, “U.S. Perspectives on School Leadership” to twelve young Armenian women, all less than thirty years old. My students were mystified by the “West” and established their fashion style from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, often wearing extremely high heels, short skirts and very tight pants, convinced that is how “American women” dress. Most of my students had never met an American before and only two of them had traveled outside of Armenia. They would often ask me, “What are your students like in the United States?” They wanted to know how they compared. My students could speak, read and write English and many of them had to advocate for themselves within their families to go to graduate school. Two of my students were married and one had a child. The level of oppression of women is more wide sweeping in Armenia, so managing marriage, motherhood and graduate school in that culture is even more complex than in America, requiring students to leave suddenly to resolve family problems when a parent, or, in particular, a mother-in-law would call. Students were fearful that when they graduated there would be little or no opportunity for them to lead schools that desperately need their talent, intellect and imagination.
My time in Yerevan constituted a successful cultural exchange because it reinforced in me that to live in another culture takes the capacity of respect. Respecting what you do not know about history, culture, language, terrain, bread and consequently requires the capacity for self-respect and dignity. I take away from this experience the knowledge that international teaching exchanges can be transformative when one is willing to examine our culture in contrast to those we visit. One teacher can make a difference when transplanted to the other side of the world if she is open to learning just as much as she will teach.