BEIRUT: Dr. Armen Der Kiureghian might not have returned to his ancestral home of Armenia had it not been for the 1988 earthquake that devastated the north of the country.
At the time, the engineer, with a specialty in earthquakes, was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and went to Yerevan for work purposes.
However, his visit to Yerevan set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to the establishment of the American University of Armenia.
Since opening in 1991, the university has grown to over 2,000 students. Now, one of the university’s main goals is to diversify its student body and increase the number of international students, Kiureghian told The Daily Star on a recent trip to Beirut to reach out to Lebanese youth and promote the university.
“We want to diversify both the student population as well as the faculty, because it enriches the educational experience for everyone,” says Kiureghian, one of the university’s founders and its sitting president.
In the late 20th century, many of Armenia’s neighbors, including Lebanon, provided shelter to refugees of the Armenian genocide, something the university has not forgotten: one of its scholarships, the Aurora Gratitude scholarship, is awarded annually to a number of students from those countries.
While those of Armenian heritage are eligible to apply for a special passport that entitles them to pay the reduced fees of local nationals, any Lebanese citizen is eligible to apply for the scholarships.
Indeed, Kiureghian says, the university actively encourages people who are not ethnic Armenians to apply in order to encourage diversity among the student body.
A small number of Lebanese students have already made the trip to Yerevan: In the past academic year, 19 Lebanese citizens chose to shun Mount Lebanon to study in the shadow of Mount Ararat, the mountain close to the Armenian capital that many Christians believe was the final resting place of Noah’s Ark.
Compared to its namesakes, such as the American University of Beirut, the American University of Armenia is not old, but it is no younger than the republic of Armenia.
Kiureghian and his colleagues first conceived the idea of the university when Armenia was part of the former Soviet Union, a fairly radical notion for a university with strong ties to the University of California.
The principal university building, indeed, was once the local congress hall of the Communist Party, where, in the 1,300-seat auditorium, such dignitaries as former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev reportedly spoke.
However, Kiureghian says, “the day we opened classroom doors, the Parliament in Armenia declared independence, so we are to the day as old as the republic.”
Despite its youth, Kiureghian believes his university has a lot to offer Lebanese students.
One of the main practical advantages, he notes, is that it is considerably cheaper than its private counterparts in Beirut, with tuition fees at approximately $8,000 per year.
He nevertheless advocates traveling abroad to study as having merit in its own right: “Experiencing a different culture [and] a different country is always an enriching experience,” he says.
Kiureghian, who grew up in Iran but now spends his time between Yerevan and San Francisco, says the cultural scene in the former has much more to offer than his U.S. home.
The Armenian capital, he says, is “culturally extremely rich from the Soviet tradition. Opera, ballet, jazz music, folk music, arts, theater: It’s so abundant.”