Interested in a career in international development and global education, Kristyn Manoukian has always sought ways to make a difference in Armenia. Little did Manoukian know that in the fall of 2016, when she first landed in Yerevan, that her commitment to working in the homeland for six months on a project with the United Nations Development Fund Armenia would lead to a managerial position at Teach For Armenia. As director of strategy and development, she leads Teach For Armenia’s organizational development and strategic partnerships, including a portfolio of local and foreign institutions and donors, such as AGBU, the Simonian Education Foundation, Scholae Mundi Armenia, HSBC Armenia and Teach For All. “We believe that we can have a unique impact on Armenian development because we work simultaneously on the community, national and global levels, focusing on strengthening mindsets by empowering children with leadership and critical thinking skills,” she says. With the majority of donors from the diaspora, Manoukian bridges Armenian charities and philanthropists with a passion for education to the homeland. She connects the dots, keeping a pulse on the global educational movement and classroom dynamics, on the one hand, and communicating her specific insights to strategic partners and donors, on the other. “This allows me to connect all layers of the Armenian movement for educational equity—from the local and regional to the national and diasporic,” says Manoukian.
For Manoukian, education is not only a critical element for Armenia’s development and progress, but also a powerful cause of unity. “Despite the many differences within Armenian communities, education can unite us all around the resilience of the population. In the face of challenges and adversity, education is the one thing that cannot be taken from you. It is strength and power. These are the values I, and probably most Armenians, were brought up with,” she says. Empowered by this opportunity, Manoukian feels that the time has come to revisit the traditional pattern of the diaspora’s engagement with Armenia by shifting from the “relief” approach to raising awareness, confronting the reality and involving ourselves personally. “We need to balance the romantic notions of a homeland with the understanding that Armenia is a real country with real and contemporary issues that are sometimes hard to face,” she stresses, adding that young people in the diaspora have unprecedented opportunities to experience Armenia on a completely new, deeper level through organizations like Teach For Armenia. “Young people, Armenian and non-Armenian alike, are looking for personally and professionally fulfilling experiences. The opportunity to contribute to something meaningful is essential to them,” she says. “These experiences facilitate a flow of people, ideas and resources in and out of the country that has only slowly opened up since independence from the Soviet Union and is absolutely necessary for broader development.”
Raised in New Jersey, Manoukian graduated from Rutgers University, majoring in political science and French with a focus on gender studies. She later received an AGBU scholarship to complete her master’s degree in international development and social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where her dissertation focused on sex-selective abortion and social institutions in Armenia. With a new vision about the homeland and the necessary knowledge in international development, she has all the tools to help contribute to positive change in the region. “It was important to me to work in a place where I had a meaningful connection to the people and the region. Armenia was that place for me,” says Manoukian. “I felt emboldened to reject what I’ll call the ‘amot eh’-mindset of sweeping our greatest challenges under the rug, which I believe is holding us back, and instead deeply engage in the best and worst parts of Armenia. This understanding is the true bridge between the diaspora and the homeland.”
Teach For Armenia, a partner organization of the Teach For All global network, recruits and trains recent graduates and young professionals who commit to two-year teaching placements in schools across Armenia. In an attempt to form a nationwide movement for educational equity, the fellows bring their expertise to roles in and out of the classroom. The independent Armenian organization placed its first 14 fellows in 2015 and now, with 71 fellows, both locals and from the diaspora, it attempts to fill in the gaps in school education both on the community and individual levels. “It is a basic right to have access to education and it is a terrible shame that this right excludes thousands of kids in Armenia,” says Manoukian. Although problems such as the shortage of teachers, the lack of access to high-quality instruction and educational inequity are not unique to Armenia, they have long-term adverse consequences on the country, including high levels of migration from Armenia when opportunities and access do not reach the rural population. On the community level, the organization targets the most underprivileged towns and villages, as approximately 21% of children from under-served communities do not complete secondary school. So far, one of the most impressive novelties that Teach For Armenia has brought to schools is the student-centric model of instruction, also called Teaching As Leadership—an approach introduced by Teach For America and adapted to the Armenian reality—with a particular focus on knowledge, mindset, skills, and community development. This approach is credited with instilling a leadership mindset in children, which directly boosts their self-confidence and advances beyond the prevailing instruction style that tends to marginalize students who do not fit a particular mold. “Our fellows celebrate the innovation and individualism necessary to mobilize communities around change. This approach inspires and empowers kids to envision and achieve what is possible for them, their communities and Armenia,” adds Manoukian, with a firm belief that these children will become skilled professionals and will shape a better future for Armenia.
Banner photo by Adam Macchia