Levon Amiryan and Hrach Kocharyan (Kenneth Martin photo)

American University Students Learn the Best Of Both Worlds at WPI

809
0

WORCESTER — The American University of Armenia (AUA) prides itself on its curriculum and state-of-the-art facilities. Now, they are able to give an opportunity to several students to study at one of the most renowned institutions of higher learning in the state, the Worcester Polytechnic institute (WPI).

The students will participate in the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), which allows students to work together to solve real-world problems.

The AUA students have been here since January and are due to leave at the end of February. In addition to the IQP project, they will take two other courses at WPI. Studying in English should not pose a problem for them since at AUA, many of the courses are in English and students are required to know the language well.

The students are Aneta Baloyan (BS CS ‘21), Nina Kirakosyan (BS CS ‘21), Lilit Ghandilyan (BS CS ‘21), Anna Tatinyan (BS CS ‘21), Knarik Manukyan (BS CS ‘21), Levon Amiryan (BAB ‘20), and Ani Ghazaryan (BA EC ‘21).

Sharistan Melkonian, dean of General Education and director of Assessment and Accreditation at AUA, and a Worcester native herself, was involved in the project.

Aneta Baloyan and Nina Kirakosyan walk around the WPI campus. (Kenneth Martin photo)

In a recent interview, she wrote that “students were selected on a competitive basis. In order to be eligible to apply students must have completed at least 60 credit hours and have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above. Interested students submitted an application including a personal statement describing their interest and identifying how the experience would complement their education. A committee of faculty reviewed the applications and invited students to an interview. There was a great deal of interest from students.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

She added, “I hope students will gain a greater understanding of the challenges that communities face around the globe, and the tremendous impact that can occur when we work together to understand and face those challenges.”

The interaction with WPI has gone both ways, Melkonian said.

“In 2019, AUA invited WPI’s Center for Project-based Learning to Yerevan as part of the AUA’s ongoing faculty professional development. Twenty five faculty members from across disciplines participated in workshops aimed at enhancing teaching and improving student learning by focusing teaching on engaging students in projects that challenge them to use their skills to address real-world problems. Also in 2019, AUA provided classroom space for the 24 students and 2 faculty members participating in WPI’s Armenia Project Center.”

Lilit Ghandilyan (Kenneth Martin photo)

She added, “The AUA-WPI partnership was born out of these previous experiences and the leadership of Mike Aghajanian. And, the partnership has fostered tremendous potential. AUA and WPI students are engaged in a unique opportunity to learn and work together complementing each other’s experiences, and ultimately engaging in projects here in Armenia. Faculty from AUA and WPI are working together and learning together. And, of course, we are hopeful that the projects that the students will engage in here in Armenia will lead to greater awareness, commitment and resolve toward solving our societal challenges in Armenia and beyond.”

Michael Aghajanian, a lecturer at WPI and the institute’s director of the Armenia Project Center, said the origins of the program dates back several years.

“In 2016, Diran Apelian [founding director of WPI’s Metal Processing Institute and a professor there] and I decided to convince WPI to open a project center in Armenia. At the time, WPI was sending students to 45 project centers around the world. We felt that Armenian society would benefit from the talents and efforts of WPI students working on meaningful high-impact projects in Armenia. We also felt that exposing these young people to Armenia would have a potentially very significant long term impact on Armenia. These young people will be leaders in industry in the next 20 years or so. In their role as industry leaders they will be making decisions on where to put design centers, which suppliers to partner with, where to place manufacturing or customer support operations, etc. If only one student took one of these actions, the way that Yervant Zorian did with Synopsis, it would be a game changer for the Armenian economy,” Aghajanian said.

 

“In 2017 we received permission to launch a pilot program in Armenia. We had 8 students on 2 projects — one project was with the Armenia Eye Care Project and the other with Smithsonian/Mt Armenia,” he added.

In 2018, he assumed the role of center director for the Armenia Project Center and completed all of the work to set up a permanent project center.

“In 2019 we had our first full class of 24 students go to Yerevan to conduct 6 projects. I served as faculty advisor with another WPI professor, Holly Ault,” he added.

AUA fit the bill on several fronts, he explained, as the students already had fluency in English.

Anna Tatinyan, second from right (Kenneth Martin photo)

Everyone benefits from this collaboration, Aghajanian said.

“The WPI-AUA Strategic Alliance is a mutually beneficial relationship. The AUA students get to come to the US to study and they get to work on projects with WPI students in a project-based learning program that has been celebrated by the National Academy of Sciences as a best-in-class program. The WPI students get a much richer immersion into all things Armenian and get to work on more complex and meaningful projects that they were not able to do with teams of American only students.”

Laura Bilazarian Purutyan, director of youth careers with MassHire Metro South/West Workforce Board, a supporter of STEM education and the parent of a student at WPI, has been helping the visiting students.

“The seven AUA students are full of enthusiasm and adapting well to apartment life on the WPI campus, where they’re quickly acclimating to the 7-week term, very different than the AUA semester,” she said.

She has been working with Lusine Baghsarian, the marketing manager at WPI, as well as the WPI Armenian Students Association and other community volunteers “to coordinate an enriching calendar between January and March. They are vibrant engaging individuals ready to experience as much of the culture and history of Worcester, Boston and New England as possible, without sacrificing their important project work,” Purutyan said.

She added, “They are gathering in the homes of Armenian-American families and connecting with many Armenian students from Worcester and Boston, as well as the 15 Tavitian Scholars who arrived in January for the semester at the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.”

Nina Kirakosyan (Kenneth Martin photo)

The visiting students also took part at a Boston AGBU Center event for hi-tech professionals.

“Ken Martin of Suffolk University and also their AUA photography professor, showed them around Worcester, through the lens of the first Armenian immigrants in the early 20th century,” Purutyan added. (Photos by Martin accompany this story.)

The students have ridden on the “T” and toured the city, including the Armenian Heritage Park. They have visited historic sites in the state as well as visited other college campuses. They are working with non-Armenian students on projects to expand their horizons.

And what do the organizers hope these AUA students will take back?

“[The memories of a] warm welcome and new friendships from the Massachusetts community and a valuable project-based learning experience and new skills they can take back to Armenia. We hope and expect this produces strong bridges that will continue,” Purutyan and Baghsarian said.

The Students in Their Own Words

Four of the students took part in an interview about their stay in Massachusetts as well as what they hope to take back.

Lilit Ghandilyan is a junior majoring in computer science. This is not her first time in the US as she said she has studied at a US high school with the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) program.

Asked what she wants to take back to Armenia, she replied, “Good memories and a motivated team ready to work on our projects. (Anything else can be ordered and shipped to Armenia!)”

“I see this program as an immense growth opportunity for me both personally and professionally and a challenge which has taken me out of my comfort zone. Me and my team are motivated to work on our IQP projects and do our contribution in Armenia’s progress,” she noted.

Another interesting fact about this group is that the majority of the participants is female. According to Ghandilyan, around 40 percent of the AUA computer science students are female.

She added that AUA and WPI are “just different,” with advantages to both. “In WPI courses are faster paced which make you more focused on them. I enjoy that most of our classes are around 30 people in AUA while in WPI there are around 100 people in each of my major courses.”

She is taking an applied statistics course as well as one titled “Foundations of Computer Science.”

Ghandilyan added that she is excited about the project she wants to implement in Armenia. “My team and I are using the Poverty Stoplight tool to measure poverty in Armenia. It is a survey developed to measure poverty in its multidimensionality. According to the data we will identify a high priority need and implement a solution in collaboration with our sponsor World Vision Armenia.

Levon Amiryan is a senior majoring in business and marketing. This visit has been his first outside of Armenia. “Exiting the airport was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. The instant contrast that I felt was incredible,” he said.

“I have loved engineering since early childhood and when I saw the opportunity to study in the US polytechnic institute I immediately applied. Also it was a dream for me to experience what it is like to be a US student having watched so many movies during childhood. Last, but not least, my most favorite professor, who taught me how to shoot gorgeous photos during the AUA summer semester, Kenneth Martin, is originally from Worcester,” Amiryan said.

Amiryan noted that he is participating in My Step foundation’s “Promoting a healthy lifestyle project,” “which aims at problems in Armenian schools, more specifically hygiene and physical education.” He added that apart from the IQP course he is taking a psychology and law course as well as an introduction to materials science.

He noted his delight in meeting with the locals. “The Armenian community of Massachusetts is incredible. The way they greeted us, helped us with every little aspect and made our lives substantially easier and enjoyable, simply cannot be described with words,” he said. Asked what he wants to take back with him: “I wish to take a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of maple syrup as icons of American culture.”

Ani Ghazaryan (Kenneth Martin photo)

Nina Kirakosyan is a  junior computer science major. Before coming to WPI, she had spent one academic year in Texas several years ago as part of the FLEX high school student exchange program sponsored by the US State Department.

“This collaboration between AUA and WPI is an excellent opportunity for me to experience a new educational approach and appreciate the benefits of project-based learning. I wish to take the teamwork, leadership, networking skills, and academic knowledge acquired through this experience to Armenia,” she said. “This program is also an excellent opportunity to meet professionals from my field, as well as the amazing Massachusetts Armenian community members, so I am happy to use this chance to widen my network and build lasting relationships on this side of the ocean. Also, I am here with a great group, so I am excited about all the memories, the fun we are having and the great friendships that we are building during these seven weeks.”

“The challenges that come with adapting to a new environment, and getting oneself outside of the comfort zone as during this program are opportunities for growth. WPI has a very strong engineering department, which I am passionate about, so I was happy to have the opportunity to take advantage of the courses and resources that aren’t available in Armenia,” Kirakosyan said. The motivator for her was that what she learned here could be applied toward the betterment of her country, one that she hoped would be even more open to females in tech.

“The female majority [of the visiting student group] came as a surprise to a lot of people. I believe that the selection process was very competitive, and I am thrilled to be studying at an institution that has many motivated and intelligent female students, breaks gender stereotypes and promotes women’s role in STEM. Like in the rest of the world, in Armenia as well, the tech industry is male-dominated. However, the ratio of women indeed is higher than in the US and many other countries,” she noted. She stressed that Armenia’s tech industry is thriving.

Kirakosyan explained that her IQP project is about designing a centralized platform “for matching Armenian diaspora resources to Armenia’s needs. We are working with the Armenian General Benevolent Union to support its mission of increasing diaspora engagement and supporting Armenia’s development.”

In addition to her project she is taking artificial intelligence and operating systems courses at WPI. “I am very passionate about computer science, and exploring AI and OS here at WPI is a unique and fruitful experience for me. These are quite intensive courses, especially with all the extracurricular activities that come with this exchange program and the cultural experience of MA that we are here to enjoy, but we are always up for the challenge.”

She also stressed her delight with the warm welcome. “We have been blessed with the support and warm welcome of the Armenian community, which we are very thankful for. I am especially happy to be working on an IQP project that aims to strengthen the Armenia-Diaspora connections for the benefit of our country.”

Aneta Baloyan, a junior majoring in computer science, said this was the first overseas visit for her. Studying at WPI has given her practical experience. “One of the aspects that is well developed in Armenia is the theory and the explicit professional knowledge. From this experience I look forward to taking back also the practice and the soft skills, as working in a team, communication, working on a real-life project from scratch and many other factors that might come up working in a multicultural environment,” she explained.

“We are proud of the gender distribution not only in our university but also in Armenia. We believe that talent must be harvested no matter where it is settled,” she noted.

Her IQP project is also “Matching Diaspora Resources to Armenia’s Needs” sponsored by AGBU. “During our stay, our team will be working on the project by researching and developing the required methodology to realize the project later in Yerevan. The projects require a well-rounded problem-solving and a great amount of teamwork and communication.”

“I am looking for ways to give back to the community that has contributed to my education and development. I guess my guts say that this program is a step forward. Until now, I am getting more and more confident about the decision I made to participate in this program,” she noted.

Besides the IQP, she is taking courses on artificial intelligence and operating systems in WPI.

The group was scheduled to take part in a program on February 28 at WPI on the Armenian Project Center to meet with all the WPI community and share their stories.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: