Karine Vann, from Fairfax, Virginia, was a Birthright Armenia volunteer for 3 months in 2013 and decided to come back to Armenia in 2014 to find work through Birthright Armenia’s Pathway to Armenia program.
When I first came to Armenia as a Birthright volunteer, I was 24 years old. I had graduated two years prior with a ‘Bachelor of Science in Music and an Outside Field in Psychology’. After a degree with a name like that, I was all kinds of mixed up about what I should or could do with myself after graduating.
The two years following my graduation were incredibly confusing and difficult. In college, I had played by the rules. I got good grades. I did all my assignments. I followed instructions. I was even President of the National Honor Society in Psychology. And by the time I graduated, I was totally unprepared for anything that couldn’t be graded. I saw all my friends with majors in economics and political science beginning to carve out their niches in the workforce. They still had to work their way up the professional ladder, of course, but at least they had found a ladder to climb. My desire to succeed as a “young professional” was only surpassed by my insecurity and doubt about my inability to fit that mold.
To bide the time, I did what I immediately could to make money. I taught piano, I waited tables, and I tried to prepare for the future, despite my profound cynicism about the present. I ended up getting accepted to one school, University of Oxford, for a year-long Master of Studies in Musicology. That was it, then! I’d go finish my Master’s at a big brand name school, do all the work, and then surely there would be a job around the corner somewhere!
If I hadn’t gone to Armenia, I don’t know how long that facade would have continued. My Birthright volunteer experience changed everything. I went to Oxford shortly after my volunteership, and from that moment onward, I was hooked on Armenia’s post-Soviet culture. It wasn’t the actual work I did in Armenia that changed my perspective (I worked at a daycare), but it had been the exposure to a world that I hadn’t learned much about in my American history classes. It was such a fascinating contradiction to my expectations. Whereas my suburban hometown had been uncomfortably comfortable, Yerevan was comfortably uncomfortable.
That’s why after I finished my Master’s and I was yet again unemployed with no leads just like my undergrad, I made my own lead. Armenia became my lead.
My first month in Armenia, I lived in the subsidized housing for repats provided by the Birthright Armenia Program. It made a huge difference. I could focus on finding work for 3 months without having to pay rent. Those months weren’t easy. In fact, I was having constant anxiety about my ability to support myself and find a stable-salaried job. I was discouraged often, but I was incredibly persistent, in a way I had never been motivated to be in the US.
I started my own blog, I did work for free, I developed interests in photography and graphic design, I attended all kinds of community events and lectures. But whereas before, I did these things with the idea that it would help me find a job, now, I just did them because I liked it. Why couldn’t that be enough? Maybe for the first time, I was living for the present moment, not for the idea of a promised future that I was somehow ‘entitled’ to.
I decided early on, probably right after I left Armenia, that I wanted to work for ONEArmenia. I liked their style. They had a cool vibe, an impressive following on Social Media, and definitely stood out from other organizations in Armenia not just for the interesting projects they funded, but because of the close attention they paid to their sleek and upbeat ‘presentation’--unique for non-profits even in the United States, but unheard of in Armenia.
My job at 1A did not happen immediately. By my third month in Armenia, Yerevan Magazine was looking for an English editor for their online content. I got thrust into writing journalistically--why not? It was interesting. I didn’t have any professional experience in it, but the media landscape (particularly on contemporary culture) in Armenia was in pretty poor shape. I wasn’t nervous about my ability to deliver high quality because many of the articles appearing on their English page had been ‘Google Translate’-ed from Armenian or Russian, anyways. There was nowhere to go but up, both for me and for the magazine’s English content. I was very lucky to land that gig. I had taken so much for granted in the US. I never cared at all about journalism, but in Armenia, I began to learn fundamental lessons about why journalism exists at all. I didn’t need a classroom. Yerevan was my classroom.
I owe a lot to that first job at Yerevan Magazine. It gave me the confidence to assert myself as a creator. I saw where some of the major gaps were in Armenia’s media landscape and I had the time and creative freedom to reflect on what my positions were and how I wanted to express them. I started to realize that everything I was producing came from a very real place--somewhere far beyond where I was working or the exact work I was doing. I realized that it actually didn’t matter at all if people did or didn’t like what I had to say. The only thing that mattered was that I was being honest with myself and just by doing that, I was doing Armenia’s media landscape a huge favor. Being selfish with your creativity is the biggest favor you can do for anyone, really.
I was offered the full time position as 1A’s Media + Content Manager in December and I can’t even begin to say how grateful I am to be working with an organization like this one. Even though my title has the word ‘Manager’ in it, it’s so not about that. It’s not about being a ‘manager’ or a ‘director’ or a ‘Bachelor of Science in Music and an Outside Field in Psychology’. Instead of communicating what it is that we do, they communicate how big our egos are (and then, ironically, only ambiguously reference our actual role in an organization). At 1A, I get to write and be creative and honest with a large and continually growing community against which I can bounce my ideas off and get feedback via social media (and now, a blog!).
All in all, my life in Armenia is far from perfect, but I’m proud of myself for persevering and I like what I do.