Prof. Anna Ohanyan

Stonehill College Students Join Theory and Praxis in Armenia Program

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EASTON, Mass. — Stonehill College faculty members Anna Ohanyan and Todd S. Gernes have created a new version of an innovative travel and internship program for their students in Armenia. It focuses on the theory and practice of global security through the lens of Armenian experience. The new three-week summer version is part of Stonehill’s Learning Community programs, while several years ago Ohanyan had already started the longer version of a Learning Inside Out Network (LION) program, where students spend four to five months in Armenia (see https://mirrorspectator.com/2016/04/21/prof-ohanyan-hopes-to-build-bridges-for-peace-in-the-caucasus/). The Stonehill students are of non-Armenian backgrounds for the most part.

Prof. Todd Gernes (photo: Aram Arkun)

The Origin Story

Ohanyan, Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, said that in the past she had always separated her research from her teaching. She was at the time looking at post-conflict regions like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Balkans in general and the South Caucasus. Peter Ubertaccio, then director of the Martin Institute for Law and Society and now founding dean of Stoneham’s School of Arts and Sciences came to her office and suggested she take students with her to some of these regions. Initially, they thought of developing internships in Rwanda, the Balkans and Armenia, with Armenia serving as a base for a conference.

Instead of Rwanda, they started in 2016 with four students in a longer program from February to the end of June in Serbia and Armenia, with two students interning in the former country coming to Armenia for a conference. They decided to limit it to Armenia for 2017, again February to the end of June, because so many opportunities were to be found there. There were three students in 2017.

In 2018, Stonehill reassessed the program by means of a steering committee with several professors and two students who had participated in the program, and this was when Gernes joined it.  The Eurasia Partnership Foundation was identified as a third-party provider for the internship in Armenia. This year, 2019, for the first time there is a three-week summer learning community version with the third-party provider. It is called Swords, Saviors, and Saints: Global Security and Humanitarianism in Practice. The longer program is not presented this year, but in 2020 both the longer and short programs will be available.

Eight Stonehill students at Boston’s Logan Airport in Boston with Prof. Anna Ohanyan, far left, and Prof. Todd S. Gernes, far right, on their way to Yerevan, Armenia early this June

Stonehill, a small liberal arts Catholic college south of Boston, promotes the integration of different disciplines or perspectives for its second-year students through its Learning Community programs, which address real-world problems requiring broad and multiple approaches, and often feature travel or learning in communities. In the Armenian case, Gernes explained, “We created a new structure for the Learning Community for this. Instead of having two courses linked to the integrative experience, we have five feeder courses connected with the learning experience. I will be linking a new course in Progressive Era history to that.” The feeder courses are on international politics (introductory), peace and conflict studies, conflict analysis and resolution, development economics, and environmental studies. There are other professors interested in preparing new feeder courses in different fields, including literature and Arabic, while Ohanyan and Gernes have been discussing creating a new course connected to empire in a global context.

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Ohanyan said that the three-week summer program this year has an environmental studies component for the first time, with an internship at the Acopian Center for the Environment at the American University of Armenia. There are eight students in all and in the evenings they will be taking a seminar to prepare for their conference talks during the last week, on June 21-22 in Yerevan.

This year, Ohanyan said, applications for the conference were received from a large variety of countries, such as South Africa, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Georgia, Iran and Turkey. The conference is hosted by Eurasia International University of Yerevan, which provides all facilities and technology. Ohanyan serves on the board of that university.

Todd Gernes

Ohanyan’s collaboration with Gernes in creating the summer program began when Gernes was Dean of General Education at Stonehill and doing a lot of programming for students with short-term travel components. Gernes, an associate professor of history and Writing Program Director at Stonehill, is an interdisciplinary historian of American culture, primarily concentrating on the 19th and 20th centuries. Ohanyan approached him to serve on her committee for the longer LION program. He suggested creating a short-term Armenian travel and internship experience that allowed students to connect with the Stonehill curriculum, and, Gernes said, “We got to talking, and I started getting more and more interested in the topic. I said, you know I grew up in Watertown and absorbed a lot of this [Armenian] history through osmosis. I studied with a wonderful musician and guitar teacher, John Baboian, who also grew up nearby.” Not only that, but Gernes’s alternative high school, the Home-Based School, was located at the time in the basement of St. James Armenian Church and he grew up with Armenian children in public schools.

Stonehill students with Professor Todd Gernes, far right, at the History Museum of Armenia

Gernes recalled that as a child growing up in the 1970s, he experienced anti-Semitism and developed empathy for Armenians experiencing similar discrimination in school. He said people would say the latter were “fresh off the boat,” “your father is a fruit vendor,” and worse, because, he said, “Watertown was kind of a tough white ethnic town growing up. Everybody was discriminated against.”

Gernes said, “I have a Russian-Jewish background. There are a lot of parallels with Armenian culture and genocide and immigration. As an American historian of the 19th century, I saw much of this history intersected with work that I had already done with the American progressive movement, and connected very neatly to the history of Near East Relief and the birth of modern humanitarianism.”

Topics: Education

Ohanyan chimed in and said that Gernes was the one to push her to work with first- and second-year students in General Education learning community courses, while she initially wanted to only take upper level students to Armenia.

“This course developed as a dialogue between Anna and myself,” Gernes said, “and it still is this wonderful dialogue that we have. In working together we almost complete each other’s sentences. I have been reading for the last year in Armenian history and literature and am really excite to travel in a few days to Yerevan. It is my first time.”

The wedding of theory, practice and experiential learning is fairly unique. Gernes said that many institutions now outsource these types of programs to third-party providers, making them much more homogeneous. The problem is that they are labor intensive and require such great personnel resources. Gernes said, “I have to be willing to go all in, essentially, and devote a chunk of my life to it. … It is not a one-year commitment, it is not a two-year commitment. It is probably more like a ten-year commitment. It is a career choice.” He will be writing two or three articles as a result of the summer program. He concluded, “For me, it was an easy choice. It allowed me personally to put my historical work into a very immediate global and international context so that was a breath of fresh air for me personally.”

Gernes reflected that one of the things he personally adds to the overall program is the dimension of past and present and connections between Armenian and American societies. As an American historian, he said, “I really began to see Armenia as an idea and a lens through which we can observe history and culture. So when we are studying Armenia we are also studying the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I and II, the pogroms in Russia, the situation of the Middle East, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the relationship between American, Europe and the Middle East, and the history of immigration. It is so incredibly rich that we can really use Armenia both as a place and as an idea to talk about world history. That is what is so exciting to me. Of course, I am both interested in history and literature, and making those connections.” In particular, Gernes is interested in the connections between the history of the American anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement and humanitarian efforts in Armenia at the turn of the last century.

He is studying World War I era posters raising funds for Near East Relief, often prepared by well known Madison Avenue illustrators. He is deconstructing one image in particular which will be the topic of his keynote talk at the Armenian conference and later an article. It is a Middle Eastern waif in traditional dress looking out longingly to her audience, with the headline “Lest we perish.” This is a 1918 poster by Ethel Franklin’ Betts. He will look at the discourse of turning true stories into very powerful images that were part fiction and part fact, and how those images were used. Gernes also just wrote a short essay on Zabel Yesayan’s In the Ruins comparing it with Emily Dickinson’s poetry that talks about grief.

 Theory and Praxis

Ohanyan said, “There is a very deep connection between the coursework and the internships. It is theory, practice, theory. We essentially built a loop — a self-reinforcing loop. We think that is the future of learning. In the classroom they do take the theory, but when we place them in internships we place them in a tightly mentored internship environment with practitioners.”

She saw that “there is a lot of learning that is occurring with practitioners which I cannot teach to my students as a trained academic.”

It is designed so that the students choose the topic of the paper they will write in coordination with their prospective internships. Ohanyan and Gernes find out from the internship providers what projects they have at the moment and then take these ideas to the students, who will write papers in the course in an applied context. Ohanyan stressed, “They do realize that the stakes of learning are really high.” They work directly with the community on the abstract theories that they have studied. After the internship is finished, the students take a course which tries to integrate practice and theory. This integrative seminar includes participation in the annual international student conference on global security studies in Yerevan. At this conference, undergraduate and graduate students from all around the world present papers. Practitioners come to organize professional development seminars.

Stonehill students at the Opera and Ballet Theater of Armenia with the Aram Khachaturian statue

Ohanyan highlighted that her field of studies, political science and international relations, is heavily ethnocentric and Eurocentric. For example, theories developed to explain great power competition are downscaled to explain relations between Armenian and Azerbaijan. The Stonehill program shows the value of studying from the so-called peripheries of the world. To understand Russian foreign policy it helps to look at countries like Armenia.

“Armenia,” she said, “is such a central puzzle to study world history,” and it should be focused on “not as an extension of a bigger conversation for the theory, but with analytical independence, with its own agency.” Furthermore, students get to realize this by working with organizations like the Armenia office of Transparency International, Civilnet or the Women’s Resource Center, because they all, Ohanyan said, “grapple with common problems of human insecurity….They learn better and more about those issues in Armenia than if they spend a few months in Spain or France, even if interning at the United Nations. That would give them the experience but they would not get close to the actual project implementation.”

The Velvet Revolution in Armenia has added a different sort of value to the Armenian internships. Gernes said, “Many American students are naïve about the value of democracy and civil engagement. Armenia is kind of a crucible for that. Our hope is that they go to Armenia and see democracy in action with fresh eyes.” Ohanyan said that the LION program originally was built on a liberal island of civil society, but now many of the program partners are actually part of the government.

This year’s learning community has its own online blog created by Gernes, https://textmuseum.typepad.com/armenia_and_america_a_sha/, where students (and Gernes) write their impressions of Armenia and post useful information.

Helping Armenia

While the program primarily caters to Stonehill students, it also helps Armenia. It gives it additional recognition as a sought-after site for international internships while highlighting the positive recent changes in Armenian society. Furthermore, Ohanyan stated, “It really should be acknowledged that Stonehill College does an enormous service to Armenia. It creates an opportunity for Armenian students to participate in an international conference. Younger voices who do not have a space to present their work get feedback. All in English, it is built as a way to help these Armenian students but also provide professional development seminars for professors.”

Gernes runs a workshop for Armenian faculty on integrating writing into the curriculum. He said, “It is commonplace in the United States but less so in Europe. I will be working with no more than 12 faculty and giving them an intense workshop on how to incorporate sequence writing into their syllabi. We have another one called the pedagogy of controversy: how do we teach controversial subjects in the classroom? How do we use it as a learning moment?”

The primarily non-Armenian students who come to Armenia from Stonehill also get very attached to the country and culture. Ohanyan exclaimed that after living there for four or five months in the longer original program, “essentially they are coming back with tears in their eyes.” Though they do not have formal Armenian language courses, they pick up many words, learn Armenian dances, and become, as she called it, “culturally competent.”

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