They say that travel is the best investment you can make. It’s a way of self-discovery, learning, and growth; and you’re forced to step outside of your comfort zone. Seeing as how I was lost 90% of the time on the streets of Yerevan, I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
Here’s the great thing about the Birthright Armenia and AVC program – it’s not just an opportunity to travel. You get to combine travel with professional volunteering in a field of your choice, weekly excursions, forum discussions, and many opportunities to learn about and experience Armenia!
I’m a bit late on submitting this post - It’s been several weeks since I left Armenia, and I’m still reflecting. Since I’m a total nerd and love learning, I thought I would break this down into “key learning points” of my Birthright Armenia experience:
Volunteering: Wanting to make a difference
Back in Canada, I have been involved in the business and adult education sectors throughout the six years of my career – whether it was working as an auditor in the corporate world, or working as a research assistant, curriculum developer, teaching, mentoring and getting involved in women’s initiatives in the university sector. When I was deciding on the Birthright program, I knew I wanted to volunteer in the business/ education space.
I came into my placement with high expectations and a very ambitious attitude of the “impact” I wanted to have and want to make a difference. But on my first day of the orientation, I was told not to have this expectation. I left the orientation feeling confused…. Why not? After having completed the program, and reflecting on those expectations, I now realize that it’s the other way around. It wasn’t about me having an impact, but rather the impact that my volunteering placement and this overall Birthright Armenia experience had on me.
My placement was in the higher education space in Yerevan at the American University of Armenia. Throughout my time there, I gained a better understanding of the education system in Armenia. I learned a lot just by being present in the university space and keeping my ears open. As a volunteer at the Birthright program, I was also able to network with other professional alumni and learn more about remote opportunities to continue my involvement. I know I would like to come back to Armenia in the near future as an alumni volunteer, whether it’s at the AUA, or through other organizations in the business/education sector.
The beauty of the Armenian alphabet and language
Prior to this trip, I was uncomfortable speaking Armenian outside of my home. I had attended an Armenian Saturday school when I was younger, where I learned the Armenian alphabet, writing and reading. As I got older and started university studies, I stopped practicing my Armenian reading/writing. And honestly, my vocabulary was not strong, to begin with – I mixed Armenian with a lot of English, a bit of Arabic and used a lot of slang.
Throughout the Birthright Armenia and AVC experience, I heard the Western and Eastern Armenian from volunteers from all around the world. This was such an eye-opener! What I loved most was when we used different words to mean the same thing. It made me realize that the insecurity I was feeling was all in my head. While we all sounded different when speaking due to our dialects and/or coming from different parts of the world, it was beautiful and made me more comfortable.
And having the chance to go on an excursion to see the Armenian alphabet monument made me further appreciate the Armenian alphabet and its history. I need to put more effort to continue my reading– within time; I hope to get better (especially before my next trip to Armenia).
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable:
This has been my motto for a while through my personal and professional life. I tried to keep this in mind throughout my time in Armenia – easier said than done of course.
Let’s start with me agreeing to go on 20 people hike to Dilijan National Park (and get lost). Let me also add that I initially wanted to avoid the hike and simply explore Dilijan city. Why? Because I usually don’t go on hiking adventures. While I love nature and beautiful scenery, I prefer the easier hiking trails. And this was no easy route. And while yes, we did get lost, and split into three groups, it was also a great experience. It taught me the power of teamwork, being prepared and there for each other in difficult times.
Or trying new things such as taking my fitness enthusiasm to Cascade in Yerevan. Yes, that’s right – why exercise at an indoor gym, when Cascade is nice and empty in the morning! With a lot of staircases at Cascade, and beautiful sculptures and fountains waiting for you, it’s a great exercise routine!
Getting out of my comfort zone was much more than trying out new activities. It also involved my surroundings. I met a great group of people. When you’re surrounded by 70+ volunteers and are part of a 70 person facebook chat, you’re going to meet a lot of great people from around the world. I’m naturally more of an introvert, so my goal was to do the weekly excursions and meet new people. I learned throughout this trip that balance was key – getting out of my comfort spot helped me meet so many people from around the globe. But at the same time, as an introvert, I enjoyed the one-on-one conversations with fellow friends and getting to know them on a more personal level.
Food brings people together
I ate my way through Armenia – from regular hummus and lavash to delicious yogurt Kefte, Dolma, Shawarma and amazing vegan restaurants, I tried a bit of everything! Ok fine… I tried a lot!
I love food, and I love eating with others. I truly believe that food brings people together at a table. During this trip, I got to have several meals with small and bigger groups. At first, these breakfasts, lunches and dinners were with strangers from different parts of the world. Very soon, it turned into eating with friends. A sincere thank you to everyone who I shared a meal with – and thank you for your patience, as I took pictures of all the food on our table.
Simply an Introduction to Armenia
I initially started the Birthright Armenia program thinking “this is my only time to do this.” My time in Armenia was short compared to some of the others. I had gone back and forth on whether to extend my stay – after all, I had so many places to see on my list – more touristic spots, hidden gems in the city, cafes, restaurants, museums, you name it. I felt like a tourist, going to see Khor Virap, Amberd, Zvartnots Cathedral, Cafeshjian Museum, Mirzoyan Library, Megerian Carpets, to name a few. I wanted more time to discover hidden gems in Armenia.
But I soon realized that this experience was simply an introduction to Armenia – in an intro to the education, politics, culture, people. Towards the end of my stay, I stopped worrying about crossing everything off my list. I already knew I was coming back.
As our t-shirts and sweaters say: Journey of Self-Discovery. That’s what this was… And I would like for that journey to continue. Whether I will come back for four weeks or a few months… I don’t know. But I know I’m coming back. My Birthright Armenia volunteering experience introduced me to the education system in Armenia and helped me meet so many great people! My experience would have been much different had I not participated in the program.
If you’re reading this and considering the program, I highly encourage you to look into it. Whether you just completed school and are looking for experience, or it’s the sector you currently work in, or whether you want to try something new further, either way, you will feel like a different person at the completion of this program.
So…. Will I be coming back as a BR alumni/ AVC volunteer? SHAD AYO!
Armenia jan, it’s not goodbye, but I’ll be back to continue the selfies and to eat my way around Armenia.