Now in its 26th year, this donor-supported AGBU signature program—an exclusive offering of the Western District—has helped Armenian teens navigate that rocky transition from youth to young adulthood.
Written for AGBU Impact Magazine 2022 by Laura L. Constantine. Photos by Ryan Contreras.
Originally from Artsakh, Diana and Igor Baghdasaryan decided to emigrate from Armenia to Glendale, California with their two children, then 15-year-old Anna and 13-year-old Aleks, in tow. They arrived in 2019, but, unlike other immigrants to America, they did not have the benefit of relatives or friends already in the country to look out for them.
Recognizing that this radical move would be challenging on many fronts, they were resolved that, for the sake of the children’s future and the educational opportunities available in America, the potential pros outweighed the obvious misgivings.
According to Diana, the biggest drawback for Anna and Aleks was leaving their circle of friends and classmates, a typical struggle for teens. Not only did they sorely miss their companions back home but also they felt culturally alienated even from peers from Armenia who had already begun their journey of acclimation as first generation Americans. Of course, the city of Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles County, is home to diverse youth who could be several generations removed from their immigrant beginnings. This only added to the culture shock.
Nevertheless, their parents agreed that as different as everything was when they first arrived in the U.S., the heavily Armenian populated city of Glendale provided them the saving grace of hearing their native tongue spoken at the markets, schools, churches, and among neighbors.
An Unexpected Turn
Aleks and Anna were settling into a routine in school and were on their way to adapting to a new life in America. Then the Covid-19 pandemic broke out with widespread school lockdowns and an economic shutdown that thrust the community into chaos and the Baghdasaryans into further isolation.
“It was only a few months since we moved here when the pandemic happened and we didn’t really know anyone. Then my niece, who had studied in London and was visiting us, told us about AGBU GenNext. She is an AGBU scholarship recipient, so I trusted her recommendation that we connect with AGBU and sign up Anna and Aleks for this mentorship program just for Armenian teens. I was already familiar with the great work that AGBU has done throughout the years, so I didn’t hesitate. The timing was perfect.”
For the family, it was a turning point. They began to feel more grounded and confident that their dream of a better life is possible, thanks to the generosity of donors and the moral support and guidance of trustworthy AGBU volunteers as well as the AGBU staff who manage every aspect of GenNext. The program’s success depends on the dedicated mentors who make a commitment to be trained by an outside experts in the field. Once trained, they are ready to be matched with a youth, anywhere from age 12 to 18, with step one—building trust—the most important.
“GenNext was a savior,” declares Diana. “At first, the kids were reluctant, only because they didn’t know what the program was about. But as soon as they attended the orientation session, they changed their minds.”
Nare Avagian, director of AGBU Educa-tional Programs, notes that there are many policies governing the program that will alleviate parental concerns about their children forming close relationships with other adults to whom they are not related or referred by friends or family.
“Now in its 26th year, this donor-supported AGBU signature program—an exclusive offering of the Western District—has helped Armenian teens navigate that rocky transition from youth to young adulthood,” says Avagian. She adds that GenNext is designed to help youth develop healthy friendships and constructive pastimes, meet their academic and social potentials, learn how to negotiate intergenerational issues and family dynamics, share their self doubts without judgment, and feel supported in their search for identity and sense of self worth.
“In addition to the crucial individual mentoring, GenNext offers a warm and welcome space for making friends with other youth from the community,” notes Avagian. “Our GenNext Center offers a range of recreational activities and afterschool services around which the mentees can bond. Ultimately, we want our youth to avoid the pitfalls of peer pressure, bullying, and online group think that can lead their best intentions and familial values astray. We want to help guide their energies in positive directions.”
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” Diana begins. “Back in Armenia, when I enrolled Anna in kindergarten, Aleks became her 'necklace.’ Every morning when I would take Anna to school, he would cry and say 'I want to be with my sister.’ Even now, all these years later, they are always together. Discussing school, friends and their plans for the future.”
Speaking of future plans, Anna chimes in to describe her vision for her life. “I want to be a doctor. Both of my grandmothers were pediatricians and I hope to follow in their footsteps. I will be studying biology and later will apply to medical school. My dream is to one day have my own practice.”
When asked how she likes to spend her free time, she responds like a typical teen: “I like to read, learn new things, and spend time with my friends. I also like to shop, watch movies, and do other fun activities.” She also feels compelled to mention that she can be both an introvert and an extrovert depending on whom she is with. “Most of my friends in school are Armenian. However, I don’t find it difficult to connect with others, as we often do group projects in school.”
As for her clearly outgoing brother Aleks, “Politics, especially Armenian politics, is my passion. That’s what I want to go into eventually. My plan is to study politics and international relations and move back to Armenia to give back to my homeland. I am strongly connected to my homeland. I also love history. It’s one of my hobbies to talk about history with others. In fact that’s what connected me with my mentor Narek, who was born in Armenia. He also likes politics and history. I consider myself an extrovert. I love to talk to people and analyze them. I like sports. In my free time, I enjoy boxing with my friend. It helps me release the daily stress.”
The GenNext Experience
“Everything was so well organized and beyond what I expected,” is how Diana described the program. “The mentors were great. Lucine, who mentored Anna, helped her with her studies, even assisting her in finding the right books that she needed for a project. “She is super nice. I am so thankful,” says Anna. Narek, too. He mentored Aleks. They would talk for hours.”
Their father Igor mentions how both mentors were very professional and helpful. “The fact that my children opened up to them so easily was already reassuring to me. It meant they could be trusted. It meant they were caring. The program is designed in a way that kids also engage in the group activities. Not only did they have the one-on-one session with their own mentor, but also they participated in group activities with other youth. They would always look forward to the group activities; every time it was something new.”
Says Anna: “I am so thankful to my mentor. And my English improved so much, and that is a big plus.” Her mom concurs: “Since the day we moved here, our daughter has been the leader in the family when it comes to researching things, taking care of paperwork, etc. I don’t know what we would do without her.”
Recently, Anna took a big step closer to her dream when she was accepted to university. “Everyone is surprised when they find out that it’s only two years since we moved here,” says Diana. “And our Aleks, he is such a history guru. Oh, he talks so much sometimes,” she quips.
Aleks makes a confession: “To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much at first. I missed the first session, when they were matching mentees and mentors so I was nervous about who my mentor would be. But I’m so glad that it worked out. Narek and I share a lot of interests. We keep in touch, and it’s been two years since we met. Sometimes we would talk for hours, sharing stories from our childhood. We laughed a lot.”
As a result of his GenNext experience, Aleks was inspired to develop his new interest in blog writing and his mentor helped him with that.
Naturally, both sister and brother, now a senior and sophomore in high school respectively, have made many new and close friends—among them, fellow mentees, and of course, their mentors and the AGBU staff. “I am very grateful to AGBU for providing this opportunity for my kids. I want them to continue to stay connected,” says their dad, who is currently enrolled in community college.
His wife Diana has the last word: “Enroll your kids! GenNext is an amazing program.”
This article was featured in the 2022 release of AGBU Impact Magazine. For more information on AGBU GenNext, click here.