When Russian writer Maxim Gorky visited the Armenian town of Dilijan roughly a century ago, he wrote: “The most striking impression of the valley is its gentleness…The air is unusually transparent and seems to be colored by dark-blue shade. It seems that mountains envelop and guard this valley with animated love and tenderness.” Fifty years later, the sylvan setting was a popular retreat for Soviet painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers—a source of creative rejuvenation where curative mineral water and inspiration sprang forth eternally.
Today, Dilijan’s dense forests and alpine climate have earned it the nickname “Little Switzerland” by the locals. While the Soviet artists have moved on, Russian business magnate Ruben Vardanyan and his wife Veronika Zonabend have divined a new fountain of imagination in the gentle valley.
UWC Dilijan, an international boarding school, known colloquially as the Dilijan School, welcomed its inaugural class of 100 students to the newly-constructed campus in September. 96 students from 48 countries, including 10 Armenian nationals—are enrolled in the school’s two-year International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. By 2017, the Dilijan School aims to add a Cambridge IGSE three-year course, expanding the school to a five-year university preparatory academy with 650 students by 2023.
The Dilijan School is one of only two educational centers in Armenia to offer the rigorous IB curriculum (the other is Quantum College in Yerevan), an internationally-standardized program that requires study in six subjects (language & literature, foreign languages, social studies, experimental science, mathematics, arts); a thesis-style “extended essay;” a philosophy course in the Theory of Knowledge; and 150 hours of volunteer service. Capitalizing on the proximity to Dilijan National Park, the school also provides an array of green extracurricularsñ climbing, hiking, horticulture, recycling, environmental science and meteorology—in addition to traditional activities like debate, drama, and sports.
The school is one of 14 UWC colleges. The first UWC college was founded in Wales in 1962. Currently, UWC has schools across the globe from Costa Rica and Swaziland to Singapore and Norway. For Dilijan co-founder Veronika Zonabend, the UWC was an obvious choice for the prep school.
“We decided the school should be international because the future is global understanding of cultures and the ability to live where you want,” Zonabend recounted of the school’s formative phase, which began in 2006. “UWC was most in line with that mission.”
While the scope of the Dilijan School is international, Zonabend says the impetus for the project originated close to home.
“[Ruben and I] were trying to find a good international school for our kids, and we saw that there are no options in CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries.”After signing up an international board of advisors, including Ralph Townsend of Winchester College and the Carnegie Corporation’s Vartan Gregorian, the husband-and-wife team began scouting out an ideal location.
“I am often asked, ëWhy Dilijan?’” says Zonabend, who cites the town’s natural beauty, climate, and location between capital cities Yerevan and Tbilisi as the primary reasons for its selection. “But the better question is, ‘Why Armenia?’ We were trying to decide between Russia and Armenia, and in the end we felt that the impact would be bigger in a small country.” Zonabend adds that Armenia appeals to three major demographic markets—CIS, the Middle East, and the Armenian diaspora—all of whom have a high demand for quality education.
After finalizing the school’s locale, the board hired an architect to visit 50 schools in various countries and design a campus informed by both modern techniques and traditional Armenian style. The result is a collection of stone-and-glass structures with angular skylights, irregular windows, and wavy rooftop gardens that, when seen from above, make the buildings virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding woodland.
The Dilijan School will be led by John Puddefoot, who founded the IB-based Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad in 2011 and previously spent over 25 years as an administrator, honorary chaplain, and mathematics teacher at Eton College in the United Kingdom. A graduate of Oxford University, Puddefoot worked in insurance before obtaining a degree in theology, serving in the Anglican Church, and then went on to pursue a career in education. Puddefoot is responsible for an international faculty comprised heavily of fellow UK educators, as well as staff from Armenia, the United States, India, Argentina, Bulgaria, and other European countries.
While the Dilijan School attracts teachers and students to Armenia from other countries, Zonabend and Vardanyan have also championed UWC committees, which will help send Armenian students abroad. “This year, 22 Armenian students got placements in UWC schools, which is a big number for a country with three million people,” Zonabend noted. “12 of those students went abroad and gained an understanding of the wider world, which is very worthwhile.” The school’s co-founder calls this a “double effect:” exposing Armenian students to other cultures while building a global community within Armenia.
“We have kids coming who never knew that Armenia existed,” Zonabend explains. “When some students got their placement in Dilijan, they looked at the map to see where Armenia was located. After having a great experience in the country, however, they will go out and become ambassadors for Armenia.”
In this way, Zonabend and Vardanyan envision the school not only as a top-tier educational institution, but also as a development project for Dilijan and Armenia. As an initiative of the couple’s RVVZ Charitable Foundation, the Dilijan School follows in the footsteps of previous endeavors such as the Tatev Tourism Project, which helped build the world’s longest aerial tramway and dramatically increase tourist traffic to Goris and the Vorotan Valley. With Dilijan School students volunteering in the community and plans for more development projects, Zonabend and Vardanyan hope to replicate their Tatev success and put Dilijan on the world map.
“This is the first project in CIS where people from around the world will send their children because of the education,” beams Zonabend, whose two younger children, she says, are already dreaming of attending the Dilijan school. “At first, most people didn’t believe we could do this. People usually go to the US and Europe to study abroad. Now, these people are coming to us.”