YEREVAN and EASTON, Mass. — Anna Ohanyan, an assistant professor of political science at Stonehill College, is currently participating in a one-year Fulbright Fellowship to Armenia, teaching Contemporary Global Issues and International Organizations to Armenian university students. Her goal has not only been to impart knowledge to her students, but more importantly, to change the way they learn and give them the necessary skills to succeed in the world outside the classroom.
Ohanyan explains, “My primary objective has been to help the local University in diversifying the teaching methodologies. Lecturing remains a dominant form of teaching in most public Universities in Armenia, and students have gotten accustomed to it […]. This method simply prevents the development of soft skills among students, such as critical thinking, analytical skills, leadership and problem solving. Studies conducted in Armenia show that employers are looking precisely for these skills, which scores and scores of University graduates simply do not possess because they have not had an opportunity to practice and enhance these skills within the lecturing mode of teaching.”
Introducing her methodology to Armenian universities has had its own challenges, including rethinking how students prepare for class, exposing students to new ways of learning and finding interactive ways of handling materials. There are also students that still prefer the passive lecturing style they have grown accustomed to, as well as battles with the administration, overloaded classroom sizes and a shortage on material supplies.
Ohanyan even met with discouragement from embassy officials who warned that students would likely not respond well to more demanding workloads and new teaching philosophies.
Despite these challenges, Ohanyan has seen hopeful results among her students using her new methodology. “I have many students who […] embraced the interactive, experiential teaching method that I utilize in my classes. It was thrilling to see how one student used a highlighter and color-coded the entire chapter, which may not be anything special in the US, but in Armenia that signaled a real hunger for learning. […] I utilize debates as a form of experiential teaching. Usually students just would [continue] debating, even after the class was over!”
A native of Yerevan, Ohanyan graduated from Yerevan State University in Armenia, received a master’s degree in conflict resolution from the School of Social and Systemic Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and earned her doctorate in political science from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, New York. Before joining Stonehill College as a faculty member, Ohanyan received pre-doctoral and a post-doctoral fellowships from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Ohanyan was selected for the Fulbright program after an intensive application process and approval by the US Embassy in Armenia.
Ohanyan was chosen as a 2012-2013 recipient to conduct her research and teach in Armenia. Ohanyan explains her goals for this fellowship year: “My proposal entails teaching two courses at a local University while also researching regional integration in politically divided areas, such as the Balkans and South Caucasus. At the end, this research will result in my second book, and I am hoping to produce a first draft by the end of my Fulbright tenure here in Armenia.”
Together with her three daughters, Isabelle Ani, Elise Mariam and Helen Susanna, Ohanyan made the move from Massachusetts.
According to Ohanyan, the only drawback to her fellowship experience has been being away from her husband Aram Adourian, who first encouraged Ohanyan to apply to Fulbright but was unable to make the move.
Despite the distance, Ohanyan notes that Adourian visits frequently and remains supportive of her goals during this year abroad.
As part of her return to the Yerevan community, Ohanyan has noted the juxtaposition of progress and the need for improvements in the city. “The downtown is beautiful, and some of the big retail chains, particularly the luxury stores, have firmly planted their ‘flags’ in Armenia. At the same time, in relative terms, Armenia is lagging behind when compared to its immediate neighbor — Georgia.
Georgia has managed to create a much better business environment than Armenia, which even attracts some Armenian businesses. In political terms, Georgia made a giant step towards consolidating its democracy by holding free and fair elections which produced a peaceful transfer of power in the Parliament. Georgia seems to be emerging as a regional leader, and unless Armenian government accelerates its reform efforts, Armenia is in danger of becoming marginal in the Caucasus.”
Ohanyan has witnessed firsthand the political and economic challenges facing Armenia. She remains optimistic about European reform efforts in Armenia, and cites the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union (EU) as one step towards achieving economic stability, though she believes that Armenia should carefully assess economic integration models like those implemented in Russia before adopting them wholeheartedly. Ohanyan is hopeful that Armenia can make the necessary changes to strengthen the economy and create new opportunities. She believes that many of the larger hindrances to economic growth — poverty and unemployment — are political in nature. She adds, “The reform processes in various areas are slow and in some cases inefficient. The rule of law is applied unevenly, and access to economic opportunities is politicized.”
Likewise, Ohanyan says that Armenian universities need to attract more foreign students to aid the economy, but that they are deterred by the government requirement that students take a year to learn Armenian prior to attending university in Armenia.
When asked whether she sees any similarities between Armenia’s challenges and those observed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ohanyan noted that “corruption and high administrative hurdles in starting up businesses are common in both countries. Armenia is fortunate relative to Bosnia and Herzegovina in terms of not having the multitiered administrative system and internal divisions along ethnic lines, which literally divides the economic space in the country […] However, in sharp contrast to the Caucasus, there are numerous and systematic outlets of cooperation between the states in the region, despite the deep political tensions between them.”
Ohanyan likened the problem in Karabagh to fundamental differences in narratives and domestic polices. These essential differences are largely to blame for the current dead-end in peace process negations, with Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group producing little progress. Ohanyan explains, “There is a desperate need for confidence-building measures between the two countries and societies, but Azerbaijan refuses to take part in such cases unless the Nagorno Karabagh conflict is solved. This is a very destructive position for the regional security. Unless new frontlines of engagement are open between various professional communities, any settlement would be hard to achieve.”
As to differences in domestic policies, Ohanyan notes, “Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state, and as such it is not very amenable to peaceful solution of the conflict. War is a tougher sell in genuinely democratic polities because in such cases the people will have to have a say over the decision to go to war. Currently there are no checks on Azerbaijan’s bellicose stance and very little international control over its military buildup.”
Another factor to consider is that “Azerbaijan is emerging as a ‘rentier state’ — the government is not reliant neither on its people nor on outside foreign aid for revenue collection. As a result, it is not very responsive to external pressures on the resolution of the conflict and/or the format of engagement with Armenian government and its society,” Ohanyan explains.
Amidst these challenges, Ohanyan is doing her part to change the tides in Armenia. She sees the greatest signs of hope in the aspiring younger generation. “Interacting with my students in Armenia, I see such drive and ambition, which, if directed correctly and if nurtured patiently, can yield enormous results down the road.” She adds, “I do believe that teaching is the most powerful tool of social change, and I am excited to have this opportunity in Armenia. My primary goal in my teaching in Armenia is to enhance the critical thinking among students who are also citizens of the country.”
Nonly is Ohanyan inspiring students, she herself is inspired by the experience of teaching her students. “I am learning how to enhance the civic dimension of my teaching. I have a refrigerator magnet in my kitchen back in Concord. It reads ‘Teaching Today Touches Tomorrow.’ I deeply and passionately believe that by teaching and through education social change will transpire one day.”
Even Ohanyan’s children are taking full advantage of the experience. In addition to becoming fluent in Armenian, Ohanyan’s twin daughters have established an English club at the Ohanyan School in Armenia, which was established by her family in the 1990s. “They are appreciating the warmth of the Armenian culture. With their little minds, they have grasped the core value of this experience – learning from the communal sense of the Armenian people,” she adds.
Upon her return to the US, Ohanyan plans to finalize her manuscript, tentatively titled Networked Peace: Regionalism in Politically Divided Areas, which hopes to contribute towards finding a solution to the “frozen” conflicts in South Caucasus. As to other goals, Ohanyan said, “I will try to figure out how to go back to Armenia! Currently I am cultivating professional networks with local Universities, particularly American University in Armenia.”
For Ohanyan, applying to the Fulbright program to teach an Armenia was one of the best decisions she had ever made. She is not daunted by the challenges ahead; rather, she is excited to continue her professional and cultural journey. “In my life, I have always thrown myself into new and challenging situations, and that’s how I have been learning and growing as a professional,” she says.