My Immigrant Story: Challenging and Succeeding

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By Armine Hovhannissian

I admire successful people. They inspire me. Everyone has their own definition of “success.” I define success as someone who has reached their full potential, or at least uncovered the need towards progress. Someone, who at the end of the day, feels gratified and content with what they were able to accomplish and contribute to making the world a better place.

I often ask myself how we, as immigrant Armenians, define success when we establish ourselves in a new host country. Is it only a roof over our heads, luxury cars, material possessions, or pursuing the profession and goals we left behind, discovering a new path, a dream unfulfilled, that perhaps could now be accomplished in this new land of opportunities? I hope through sharing my story, I will be able to inspire others who are embarking on their own journey or are on a path to self-discovery. I know that within each one of us, there are unique and hidden talents to be brought to life. I believe having a positive attitude, open mindset, and surrounding ourselves with likeminded people, will create an abundance of opportunities to bring those to life.

I grew up in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, in a family of engineers. I am the youngest of three sisters, and often was referred to as being the son to my parents. I was definitely a tomboy; coming home with scratches, bloody knees and dirt all over me. It seemed as if I was always up for a challenge by speaking the truth, standing up for my friends, and organizing street game contests and events. My parents gave me an amazing childhood, spending summers on the shores of the Black Sea, or at our summer house just outside of Spitak. I remember helping my grandparents make homemade butter and cheese, planting cabbage and potatoes for the fall harvest, and often found myself in the midst of the bees’ nest. These were true memories of childhood fun. It gave me insight into real life lessons on how people earn their daily bread to provide for their families. Seeing the tangible rewards of my own labor during harvest, cemented the foundation for me to value and appreciate hard work. My parents instilled in me the importance of education and staying true to values such as respecting the elderly, honesty and integrity, and the gratitude in helping others.

However, back in the 1990s growing up in Yerevan, I recall my teen years in the dark, as many refer to as “the dark years of Armenia’s independence.” Armenia was recovering and still is, from the 1988 devastating earthquake that took the lives of thousands of innocent people, and left cities and hundreds of villages destroyed. It had a direct impact on my family, as I had witnessed the unimaginable that I would not wish for any 11-year-old to experience. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s independence in 1991, and the Artsakh Liberation War, had created a distressing economic state of hardship where basic daily needs such as food and electricity were scarce. I remember studying for college exams under an oil lamp. When the electricity would come back on for only two hours, on a good day, suddenly the entire building would come to life, and you would hear people running around frantically to accomplish as much as possible. The times were arduous, but we were creative and resourceful, finding ways to come up with games to keep ourselves entertained. For one thing, I learned how to run a small television off a car battery! Even standing in long lines fighting for limited amounts of bread and butter was entertaining. I recall helping my dad chop wood and dragging it from the nearby woods, on a sleigh, to burn for warmth in the old-fashioned wood stove on the third floor of a five-story apartment building, in the city, with the pipe coming straight out from the brick wall. Not to mention, we also used it for cooking, and I enjoyed roasting potatoes on the hot surface of the stove. We were forced to survive the harsh winters, with very limited resources, which also meant not attending high school for a period of time due to the cold and lack of heat.

It has now been almost 20 years since I moved to the United States. It is still a learning experience for me as I continue to discover my purpose and what I am capable of achieving. I embrace the lessons I have learned, and the challenges I encounter on a daily basis; always opting for challenge over comfort. I believe that the greatest things in life don’t come easy, at least for me, as a 20-year-old trying to process leaving a large family behind, especially my mother, who is my best friend, and starting a new life abroad. I know I am not alone. Not only was marriage already a life-changing event, but it was also the new language, and the adaptation to the new and diverse culture of America. The most challenging of all, that was also a wakeup call for me, was the fact that I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in Armenia, and had no idea how I would pursue it with my broken English and lack of background of the field in America. I must admit that I was never really passionate about engineering, as it was arbitrarily chosen for you back in those days growing up in a family of engineers, especially when your father is the dean of the department, and following in the footsteps of my two older sisters. Although at that time my diploma was my pride, I felt lost and frightened.

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Over the years, I realize how lucky I am to be married to a supportive husband who is also a wonderful father to two of my beautiful children; a daughter who is a freshman in college, and a son who is a sophomore in high school. As I strive to be a good role model for my children, I often look up to my wise dad, who has been and continues to be my role model. His words never left me when I was at the gate boarding for my journey to America, with his last hug and a tear coming down; he looked at me and said: “Bales (my child), I have no doubt you are going to be in good hands, but know that life is a funny thing. Become someone, so you can stand strong on your own two feet and be able to provide for yourself and your children.” I didn’t realize the magnitude of his words until I was more or less settled in America, starting a family and having my own children.

My journey in Boston began when I became conscious of the fact that my biggest hindrance was the inability to speak and write English fluently. I realized that not only was it going to hold me back, but that as a mother, I needed to be able to raise my children in society and be their advocate; properly communicating with schools, teachers, and whatever I needed to do on a daily basis as a citizen, including my career. I had a goal of learning five new words every day, and had a wonderful tutor who would come to my house for lessons. I remember reading and translating articles from the Boston Globe while my daughter played in the cradle. The English dictionary all of a sudden became my bible.

We all start from somewhere. I reflect back to the days when I was expecting my daughter and working at a small nut store called Mixed Nuts, now Fastachi. I was working at the front register as well as helping in the back of the store filling hundreds of bags of orders. One day, a confident young woman walked into the store dressed in a black business suit and I just froze standing there in my dusty apron and a hair cap. I simply wanted to be her. In that very moment, I reflected back to what my parents instilled and hoped to see in me; to never be afraid of dreaming big, regardless of where you are destined to embark on a new journey. I realized this was just the beginning of an adventurous ride. I constantly found myself in the state of self-discovery, in the pursuit of identifying the gap between where I was, where I saw myself to be, and what I needed to do to get there. As time went by, to gain experience and build new skills, I searched for opportunities here and there; from an administrative assistant at a small doctor’s office, to a project manager, to currently managing large-scale program operations at one of the leading health insurance companies in New England. I found healthcare to be a fascinating field to build a career upon. It wasn’t an easy ride. I recall going to a job interview at a downtown hospital with little experience. My heart was pounding from fear and the unknown. Through my perseverance and excitement for this growth opportunity, I pulled it off and was hired by the vice president of the department, who later became an exemplary mentor. However, I also recall days where I would lock myself in the restroom and quietly fight my tears when I did not understand the business lingo or did not know how to complete an assignment. I would look in the mirror, wipe my tears, put mascara and lipstick on and walk out of that restroom as if I were the CEO of the company. I simply chose not to give up. I would bring work home, google terms, and read through papers to self-educate. I made it through a challenging couple of years, relying upon my dad’s words to help me get through it. As we discussed an implementation of a multimillion dollar new site project, my contributions and voice made me aware that I am no less than anyone else in that board room. I realized that I just needed to believe in myself and stay focused. That’s all!

We are our own largest investment. Throughout the years, I experienced how easy it is to lose self-esteem and confidence when we find ourselves outside of our own comfort zone. The path of an immigrant is the ultimate test of this. Through experience, I learned that in times of self-doubt, we need to ask. We need to reach out to others when we need direction, which I find can be quite intimidating to do in my culture. Seeking advice and asking for guidance is a strength — not a weakness. I consider myself lucky for having had great mentors, that I still have to this day, who taught me valuable lessons; one being that we stop growing when we stop learning, which encouraged me to go back to school for my MBA 15 years later. There were days where I would only get a couple of hours of sleep, or not see my children. My car was my second home as I would quickly grab a bite in between work and going to class, or reading a case study while my son was at soccer practice. The struggles and challenges of juggling a career and family while in school allowed me to unlock my true potential and manifest my inner strength.

As humans, we are resistant to change. One of my favorite quotes from Henry Bergson: “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” Through my personal experiences, I discovered that the key to self-growth is to be able to adapt to change as well as overcome the mindset of insecurity and the intimidation of asking for and willingly accepting constructive feedback. I challenged myself with overcoming those feelings, and do believe that once you are on the other side of the spectrum, not only will you discover your hidden talents and your full potential, but you will also be able to make a positive impact on others and your community. And the beauty of this endless journey is that all of a sudden, you find yourself in a contagious cycle of constant giving and receiving. It is incredible, it is powerful, and for me, the most gratifying feeling of all is to hopefully leave this world better than how we found it.

(Armine Hovhannissian lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two children. She is a co-founder of New Paths-Bridging Armenian Women https://www.facebook.com/groups/115978938867164/.)

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