On the occasion of the 103rd anniversary of the victory of the Battle of Sardarapat, the Yerevan Botanical garden invited the Learning Mission veterans to a tree planting. The heroes from Learning Mission were given the opportunity to plant the tree of victory. Among the invited were also the soldiers presently serving in the army.

Learning Mission Retools Artsakh War Veterans for IT Work

599
0

YEREVAN/GLENDALE — The disastrous 2020 Artsakh War mobilized Armenians throughout the world during and after the fighting. Despite the generally negative aftermath, creative efforts to help Armenia recover, and especially to help the individual victims of the war, continue to multiply. Learning Mission is one such grassroots effort, driven by the passion of its founders and volunteers.

Its initial founder and chief executive officer is the dynamic Rouben Gargaloyan, a full stack senior software architect and technical leader based in Glendale. Born in Armenia, he received his education at Yerevan Polytechnic University before moving to the US in the late 1990s.

Rouben Gargaloyan

Gargaloyan said, “We decided to create the Learning Mission organization right after the Artsakh War, when we realized that our loss was in many ways technological. We could not keep up with the technological advancements of our enemies, and that resulted in the catastrophic losses of our country. As a computer professional, I realized that there is a lack of computer and internet technology education in Armenia.”

He spoke to many IT CEOs of companies in Armenia and they all told Gargaloyan the same numbers: every year there is a 30-percent increase in demand for IT professionals in Armenia. This is a vast demand, Gargaloyan concluded.

There actually are a variety of organizations that provide such education in Armenia, but most, if not all, require prior background such as in mathematics or related fields. What is unique about Learning Mission is that it primarily serves veterans of the Artsakh War, many of whom who were gravely wounded and remain handicapped, unable to do many conventional jobs requiring mobility.

Gargaloyan said, “We give preference to people who have severe injuries: no legs, no hands, no eyes, and others who would pretty much have no future with these types of injuries. We give them hope. We are giving them a chance. Their background is not important.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

He continued: “Our great experiment is essentially to find people who only have an interest in learning. The only condition that we set is are you really serious, are you motivated to get this education? When the answer is yes, we don’t ask any further questions about preparation and background. We could sense when a person was really motivated.” Many of the candidates have zero background in technology but the goal is to give them a jumpstart, with a critical mass of knowledge that allows them either to continue at the higher education level in Armenian schools or universities, or just be prepared for a job interview.

Gargaloyan founded the nonprofit organization right after the war in November 2020, and did some initial fundraising. He registered it in California. After this, he said he and his good friend, top Silicon Valley technologist Armen Solakhyan, went to visit Armenia to assess the situation in mid-January 2021.

While in Armenia, the two put together two classes, with 24 people total. The students were found through various channels. Gargaloyan had friends in Armenia supporting such students individually monetarily so they brought them to him. Afterwards, word of mouth brought more students.

How It Works

Gargaloyan took charge of teaching the first class while his godson Aleksander Hakobyan, a graduate of the Slavic University of Yerevan who is an established mathematician, took the second one. They established good relationships with some IT companies which helped obtain computers, so that they purchased 18 laptops and computers to give to students who lacked them. They promised to pay each student a $50 a month stipend to offset Internet expenses so that they can focus only on their education. Furthermore, Gargaloyan said, they promised to double their stipend if they pass a midterm exam.

Learning Mission student receives new laptop

After returning to the US, the two contacted IT organizations for support and prospective employment of Learning Mission graduates. On February 9, Gargaloyan conducted his first lesson. Since then, they offered the students programming lessons of two hours twice a week, and English lessons twice a week as well. The latter was necessary for them to keep up with IT technology as most explanatory material is written in English. When a third group of IT students was established, another IT instructor was found so that now two instructors are based in Armenia and one in the US.

. Learning Mission student receives a computer for his classes

The IT teachers are always available to their students to provide help and answer questions. They socialize with them as well. There is a user group through Telegram created for each instructor, and a YouTube channel with lessons for those who were unable to attend a particular live session.

Gargaloyan’s wife Narine Shakhramanyan, with great experience in the Foreign Language Academies of Glendale (FLAG) dual language immersion teaching program, and five other instructors, including a professor of San Jose University and graduates of language universities, began giving the English lessons. Five of the six English instructors are located in the US, so they have early morning classes to account for the time difference with Armenia. The sixth English language instructor, Zaruhi Shahinyan, a graduate of Yerevan’s Bryusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences, is also one of the two coordinators in Armenia. She was temporarily visiting Boston in May but will be returning soon to Armenia. The second coordinator in Armenia is Armen Gasparyan.

Zaruhi Shahinyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Shahinyan said, “After the war, I wondered what we could do. We wanted to do something for these youth but didn’t have that much money. Rouben thought of it, and it was a very good idea. We never expected that we would become so close to these youth. When you see their eyes shine, then you say to yourself, so it is good that I am living.”

On top of all the other lessons, Gargaloyan said, “We found it extremely important to educate in history and culture, so every month we have an open public event, which we record, and have studies of Armenian history.” The speakers for the monthly events are from a varied background. Nana Minasyan, the wife of famous composer and musician Ruben Hakhverdyan, teaches the history of Armenian art and literature. One of the students in the program happens to be a teacher in a school in Goris and had studied with Artak Movsesyan, so he also lectures. He plans to eventually publish a series of historical studies. Another student traveled throughout Armenian to explore historical sites and gave talks with pictures of archaeological findings in Armenia. A Yezidi student will give more information on his community to the students. It is an ad hoc process, Gargaloyan said, each month, on new topics outside of IT and English.

In general, the goal is to deepen the students’ knowledge of their history and heritage. Gargaloyan said that many aspects, such as the origins of Armenian architecture and art, are not taught in the public schools, where the curriculum is getting more and more basic.

The technology classes gradually were expanded, based on practical experience. Gargaloyan said that some of the students had difficulty in advancing in programming and expressed an interest in AutoCad, a software used for architectural and engineering drawings. This skill is highly renumerated and useful, so a class for this is being established at present. A volunteer offered to help teach computer support and repairs, which is another field that pays well and is important. Another student wanted to learn UI/UX (user interface and user experience design), and so Learning Mission obliged.

Morale and Creating a Community

The goal is to study the students and see what their interests and capabilities are in order to direct them towards well paying jobs in Armenia. Beyond that, there is the element of reinforcing morale. Gargaloyan said, “Our students are really friendly with each other and help one another. That is very motivating for us personally, when we saw that we are not only educating people but building a community. Essentially, we created a family that is extremely strong.”

This sense of support had a great impact on the students. Gargolayan noted, “When I initially started, they were extremely down. It was very hard for them. Now we can laugh and joke together.”

Learning Mission coordinator and English instructor Zaruhi Shahinyan declared, “This generation is different from us. They are 18-years-old. It is unclear whether one of them will be able to walk again, but he still has such ideas in this condition. They have passed through such an awful journey, at 18-years-old, something that none of us have experienced.”

The Union of Veterans of the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh issued a certificate of appreciation of the activities of the Learning Mission and coordinator Zaruhi Shahinyan

One of the students was stuttering due to the enormous stress he experienced during the war. He had remained two hours underground. He was in a deep depression and he did not walk, when Shahinyan first met him. They gave him a laptop but he did not even know what a computer file was. He was living in very poor circumstances but wanted to learn programming. The second or third visit he began to smile. Then once he telephoned and did not stutter even one time, Shahinyan said. He did not realize it himself at first. In only four months he reached great heights in programming  and applied to the programming division of the Slavic University, where Shahinyan’s son teaches. With his improved circumstances, there is not even a trace of stutter left.

Gargaloyan said, “The students understand that we love them. We have very strong personal attachments and help them with issues in their daily lives.” For example, one student’s leg was completely destroyed and had terrible wounds. His restroom was outside the house. It was a nightmare every time he needed to use the bathroom. The Learning Mission team found sponsors to build a bathroom inside the house. They delivered beds for other students, a table and chair for a student who had nothing in his house at which to sit, and even helped one student who wanted to raise chickens.

Shahinyan observed, “The boys are so proud. Many live in the provinces. It is very expensive, around $70 round trip, to go to Yerevan. I found out that this is the reason that one of the students, Garo, did not go to the hospital. I asked him why don’t you go? You are in pain. I telephoned and telephoned. Finally I understood that it was the cost. We sent a vehicle and said, we don’t want to hear anything from you. Now once a month he goes to the doctor. And despite his pains, he still follows his classes.”

The students are from all over Artsakh and Armenia, including from Artik, Armavir, Jermuk, Vanatsor, and Yerevan. There are two or three women taking courses who were active during the war and could not be refused. They are the only non-veterans. There is also some ethnic diversity with a member of the Yezidi community who is one of the top students. There are a few older middle-aged students in their late forties as well as the young ones finishing their teens, but the majority are in their mid-twenties.

While most students stick to the program, there are some exceptions. Shahinyan said that the instructors would always wonder whether it might have been due to them, so they tried a thousand times to speak with them, but whether it is family issues, laziness or just not a suitable subject for them, four or five gave up and left.

The glue that holds all the programs and activities together is the dedication of two coordinators in Armenia, who receive only a very, very nominal free to support their gas mileage and other expenses. One coordinator works fulltime while the other also teaches English and so does have an independent source of income. The coordinators visit students in hospitals, where they bring little gifts or cake.

Some of the students of the Learning Mission attended an event at the Tsitsikyan Musical School

They arrange events. They gather the students together with specially fitted buses and vans, as many can’t walk or go out of their house normally. For example, Ruben Hakhdverdyan gave a concert to raise funds for the Learning Mission and a lot of the students attended. Another time, they were taken to a soccer game.

Gargaloyan said, “All of these efforts are borderline heroic, or maybe just heroic. We can’t afford paying them big salaries. I am trying to increase our funding to sustain the coordinators and pay decent salaries so they can stay and do their work fulltime without looking elsewhere for a source of income.” As Learning Mission expands, more coordinators will be needed.

In May there were 48 students and two pending ones, so that there will be 50 in all. Among the current students are five advanced individuals who were placed on a special track with daily lessons. An engineer who works at Google prepares them for job interviews at a major European company in Armenia, which will be happening very soon.

Gargaloyan also remarked that a job placement agency in Armenia has agreed to help place Learning Mission students after they reach a certain level of competency in the program. Shahinyan added that one of their first students has now opened his own programming business and wants to take Learning Mission’s new graduates.

Finances

Learning Mission has a board of directors including Gargaloyan, Solakhyan, Shahinyan, Shakhramanyan, founder of Haik Project Astrik Vardanyan, business professional Elina Bakamjian, pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Church of Fowler, California Fr. Gomidas Zohrabian, FLAG program teacher Diana Sanamyan, and Izabella Harutyunyan, who has a Master of Language Arts. A youth board is led by Hayk Gargaloyan and Zare Arakelyan. Learning Mission is a 501c in the US, and soon will have a chapter or branch established in Yerevan. Gargaloyan said this sister organization will simplify financial operations and make them even more transparent.

Fundraising for Learning Mission in California

He stressed, “We have complete transparency. Every penny sent there is documented, but currently, in order to distribute stipends, I have to send physical money to our coordinators who distribute it to the students. We want to establish business to business interactions to make this more traceable and transparent.”

The success of Learning Mission is leading continually to more people finding out about it, even via Facebook, and asking to be included. Simultaneously to this growth, the donation stream subsided. Gargaloyan suspects this is a psychological issue of people becoming tired of donating. Another problem is that the original team is so busy with education that it does not have enough time to work with the media and improve its website to gain more public recognition. To help solve this problem, interns are being sought in Armenia for the summer to help with public relations.

It should be also noted that all the instructors have their own regular daytime jobs aside from their Learning Mission volunteer work. All proceeds go to students directly for their stipends or computers. There are no offices as all classes are held online, so no infrastructure costs. The only payment outside of students is to the coordinators for gas mileage.

There are monthly donors who contribute to support one or two students and there have been major one-time contributions which have jumpstarted the program. Now Learning Mission is targeting IT corporations in the US with executives of Armenian origin to help it expand further.

Gargaloyan stressed one more thing: “We are really removing ourselves from any party affiliation in Armenia. We make it very clear that we do not support any party. There are 150 of them in Armenia. We are neutral.”

Shahinyan marveled at the strength of the students and stressed her determination to continue to help them as much as possible. She exclaimed, “Students study with the same discipline with which they served during the war. They cannot be broken. I cannot imagine what would have to happen for them to be broken in life. At first, when I would go to see them, I would begin crying. The tears started flowing, but they gave us dukh and inspiration.”

Gargaloyan reiterated his determination to continue the work he started, and hoped that more financial resources would be found to expand this hands-on program. He said, “We will be doing it and change Armenia. We do change Armenia. We are educating people as we speak and we have proven success stories.” For more information, see https://www.learningmissionarmenia.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/LearningMissionArmenia.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: