By Lisa Manookian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
YEREVAN — In her professional career, Edele Hovnanian has led more than two dozen companies in commercial real estate and health care for over two decades. As a leader in the Armenian community, she is or has been a trustee and board member of several institutions, including the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, Inc., the Hovnanian Day School, the Armenian Assembly of America, the Land and Culture Organization, Junior Achievement International and the Armenian National Institute. But Edele Hovnanian’s greatest achievement is her devotion to volunteerism in Armenia. As the founder and prime mover of Birthright Armenia, Hovnanian has sowed the seeds of service and self- awareness in a vibrant and confident generation of Armenian youth, while concomitantly allowing them to nurture their own leadership skills by experiencing Armenia in a most humbling manner — as Birthright Armenia volunteers.
Hovnanian has been traveling to Armenia since the early 1970s. During that period, she participated in youth-oriented educational, cultural and volunteer service programs. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 with a joint bachelor’s degree in economics and engineering, she matriculated at Yerevan State University’s Graduate School of Oriental Studies where she concentrated in linguistics.
Hovnanian’s graduate study in Armenia from 1982-83 was a defining moment in her life, allowing her to discover her voice as an Armenian and set the direction of her future service throughout the diaspora and in Armenia. Although raised in a close-knit and prominent family, Hovnanian embarked on a quest in search of her own Armenian identity in her early 20s, and was welcomed with open arms in a country where she immersed herself fully, learning about their lives, language and customs, thus allowing her to see Armenia from the inside out.
In the summer of 1988, Hovnanian participated in a restoration campaign of traditional Armenian homes in Kessab, Syria, sponsored by the Land and Culture Organization (LCO). This experience motivated her to take the helm of the LCO for more than a decade. At this juncture in her life, Hovnanian decided that when financially able, she would create a structured program that encouraged young Armenians to not simply visit Armenia as tourists, but work as volunteers and live amongst the people.
Thus, in 2003, Birthright Armenia was born. Birthright Armenia builds bridges for Diasporan Armenians through volunteer internships in Armenia by providing roundtrip airfare, living arrangements with local families, educational excursions, language instruction, networking events and seminars — all designed to create a deeper understanding of Armenia’s complex cultural and political milieu, while contributing to the nation’s growth and development.