The American University of Armenia (AUA) Extension AGBU NKR Program, aimed at bringing flexible certificate programs to off-campus professionals, has seen steady growth since its launch in April 2013. Courses in business, human resources, English and other practical skill-sets are offered at a nominal fee, enabling a diverse range of applicants to take advantage. To accommodate the burgeoning number of students, the program will soon be housed in AGBU NKR Campus, currently in the planning stages. AGBU and AUA hope it will not only promote higher education, but also teach new ways of thinking and succeeding in the post-Soviet republic.
In the village of Mets Tagher, in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR), a group of young men and women stood under the hot summer sun, ready to learn how to play an ancient game. Before them was their fortress, a wide circle in the dirt, which half the group was to defend against the others, who were armed with ropes. The traditional folk competition was first invented as defensive training for villagers lacking weapons in past ages. Skeptical at first, the participants quickly dug in, forgetting their inhibitions and engaging in the "unfriendly game."
It was the last day of the Mets Tagher Summer Leadership Camp, a pilot program sponsored by the Nagorno Karabakh Ministry of Culture and carried out by the AUA Extension—AGBU NKR Program. The experimental program offered participants, ranging in age from their late teens to mid-twenties, the chance to spend a week away from home and learn valuable skills for the workplace. The participants had travelled from across Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh to stay in the remote village in NKR's Hadrut region, and they were intent on enjoying their last day. The young women, who had first arrived with heels—de rigeur in the capital, had long since abandoned them in the dorm.
The first noticeable aspect about the camp was that the women outnumbered the men by a staggering ratio. The camp leader, Tehran-born and California-raised Shant Petrossian, was intent on dragging the participants out of their cultural comfort zones.
"Our girls are really tough," he said, watching the group. "But there is still this patriarchal culture in Armenia. Yes, they outnumber the guys, but one of these guys can order around a whole pack of girls," he said watching the group listening to the instructions of the warm, burly camp coordinator, who hailed from Mets Tagher.
Throughout the week, the campers had participated in a series of lectures and games aimed at teaching teamwork and confidence. In one competition, the group broke into two teams; members took turns being blindfolded and directing their teammates on how best to form the assigned geometric shapes.
But It was the traditional Karabakh game that brought out the competitive edge for the female participants.
Far from the rigid conventions of the city, the young women took on their male counterparts, and beamed broadly when they won control of the fortress. Perhaps even more significant was that the village children got into the spirit, watching the "big kids" compete and emulating them with their own sports.
Petrossian, who was running the camp for the first time, explained that the goals went beyond simply giving the participants a certificate.
"We're teaching leadership, but at the same time we want to engage the people in the village and bring life here. We also want to get people used to the idea of camping and give them a chance to be independent away from home” he said.
The lively village was buzzing with excitement, with women preparing warm spicy meals of meat, potatoes and fresh bread at the nearby dining hall and men offering samples of the potent local mulberry vodka, now sold in smartly-labeled bottles.
As the week wrapped up, no one wanted to leave the rolling green mountains for home.
The International Language
Back in the NKR capital of Stepanakert, the AUA Extension—AGBU NKR Program was in full swing. A classroom of eager students did not take their eyes off Dr. Arpie Balian, the director of the AUA Extension.
Balian, a former U.S. government official who earned the nickname "Iron Lady" for her poise and drive in expanding the burgeoning program, teaches back-to-back courses from dawn until dusk. She oversees the Stepanakert campus as well as rural Armenia programs, like the Mets Tagher camp.
For the coiffed professor, with decades of experience in the public and private sectors, the program is an exciting way to contribute to local development. But she is based in Yerevan and deflects credit to her staff in NKR as the driving force on the ground.
Nonna Poghosyan, the coordinator of AUA Extension in Stepanakert, proudly presents the lively classrooms in Stepanakert School No. 3—the program's temporary home before the AGBU NKR Campus is completed nearby.
She points to a room of computers where a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) center is slated to open early next year, and which will save students the grueling six-hour journey to Yerevan. The Continuing Education Program offers courses including Public Policy & Administration, Tourism & Hospitality Management, and preparatory classes for standardized tests like TOEFL. From May through July, 437 students earned certificates through the Extension.
With six levels of English language courses, the program offers great promise to Armenians who appreciate the value of mastering this international language. According to Poghosyan, dozens of prospective students have eagerly signed up for the waiting list. For many Karabakh Armenians, their end goal is to attend AUA or apply to institutions of higher education in the United States.
"The certificate courses definitely make a person more competitive in the job market. There are currently only two courses in English, but we are preparing two English courses to be taught in villages," said Poghosyan.
"I feel English is replacing Russian as the most popular language, especially for families that speak only Armenian and for young schoolchildren," she added.
Courses are subsidized through the financial support of AGBU, and the lowered cost makes a world of difference for Karabakh residents. The fee for the English courses is only 10,000 Drams (about $25, at the current exchange rate), while in Yerevan it would cost about four times as much.
For AGBU Nagomo Karabakh Project Coordinator Sassoun Baghdassarian, the AUA Extension—AGBU NKR Program holds more promise for the future of the republic than any other initiative.
The attraction of this program, for most Armenians, is to earn a certificate in a concrete skill set or English. At first, Baghdassarian admitted, he was curious about the value of a leadership camp. But after a day in Mets Tagher, witnessing the spirit of cooperation and leadership instilled in the young adults and the lessons transferred between the campers and the villagers, he was convinced.
"For me, education is the most important thing we can support in Karabakh. This is the best way to improve our future," he said.