On the day of my college graduation, I received an email informing me that I had been selected to be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, placed in Armenia. I applied to the Fulbright Program shortly after my first visit to Armenia, a too short
two-week vacation, determined to return and immerse myself in the culture for a longer period of time. At the time, I thought that I had enough knowledge of the country and a firm enough grasp on the language to be able to stand my own ground for the duration of my nine-month grant. After the first four months, however, despite an excellent semester of teaching and overcoming the learning curve associated with moving to a new country and starting a new job, I realized that something was missing. I didn’t feel fully immersed, I wasn’t exploring my other interests, I wasn’t taking advantage of more opportunities around me, and I lacked a community I could call my own.
That’s where Birthright Armenia came in. Though I knew about the program prior to moving to Armenia, I waited until I had acclimated to my Fulbright placement to determine whether or not I should apply. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to balance both my Fulbright responsibilities and Birthright Armenia responsibilities into my schedule. With a little planning, the flexibility and support of the Birthright staff, and with the realization that I would forever kick myself for missing out on a great opportunity, I sent in my application. When I formally began Birthright in January, I realized just how enriching the experience was, and just how much Birthright truly completed my experience in Armenia.
When it comes to relating all the little joys and wonders associated with starting Birthright, I can’t find the right words for the beautiful experiences I had, one after the other. This is where I will begin to rely on anecdotes, and let these experiences speak for themselves:
First, there was my favorite excursion to Tatev Monastery, when we climbed down a passageway to come out to a breathtaking gorge green all around, the stone monastery behind us, the steep cliff directly ahead of us, immersed all around in thick fog. My Los Angeles born and bred lungs could barely handle the clean air. Knowing that this monastery and its history is part of my personal heritage as an Armenian is uniquely wonderful.
Another moment I’ll always remember took place on a trip to Garni. I stopped by one of the vendor’s stalls just outside the gates. The vendor, a whitehaired woman who looked to be in her early sixties, kindly allowed me to sample each of the colorful sujukh, preserves, and gata before purchasing a small portion of each. Just as I got into the car to head back home, she called me back. «Բուռդ բաց», or “Hold out your palms!” she commanded, and poured the remaining jar of fragrant dried plums into my eagerly awaiting palms. Surprised, I thanked her, and waited until I was back in the car to devour the fruit, sweetened still more by her generosity.
There were the “hello, sister”s and “see you later”s from the microbus drivers who came to recognize and greet me as I commuted to and from my jobsites (Birthright helped me volunteer with organizations directly related to my academic experience). There were the many inspirational projects the volunteers organized and worked for, allowing me to learn about different sectors of the country. There were excursions and the opportunities to interact with locals, all of whom were overwhelmingly kind and accepted us with pride. These are just some of the little things that made living and volunteering in Armenia absolutely wonderful. For those who want to experience Armenia themselves, there is no other way to get the full experience but to visit, volunteer, interact, and be immersed in this country and all its wonders. If you’re considering Birthright do it. If you’re on a Fulbright or other fellowship, consider participating in Birthright or Armenian Volunteer Corps as well. The experience will add an extra dimension to your cultural immersion, and will truly enhance your stay in Armenia.