BELMONT, Mass.—It wasn’t just the Armenian delicacies Nick Pittman tasted at his friend Laura Zarougian’s house while growing up in Cambridge that led him to consider Armenia for his Peace Corps service, but they definitely came to mind.
It was also the challenge of learning a new language and alphabet and discovering a new part of the world, as he explained in his talk “Grassroots Development in Rural Armenia: Challenges, Opportunities, and Lessons Learned,” as part of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues, held at the NAASR headquarters in Belmont, Mass., on Jan. 18.
Most people don’t realize that Peace Corps Volunteers can now express a preference for where they want to serve and apply for an opening. A graduate in economics from Reed College, Nick arrived in Armenia in the Spring of 2016 and jumped into intense language and work training. After a stint in Sarnaghpyur, he settled in Margahovit in Lori Marz in northern Armenia as a community and youth development volunteer and worked closely with a small grassroots NGO that focuses on youth empowerment.
There are a total of 70 Peace Corps Volunteers in Armenia, who all work in rural areas or secondary cities like Gyumri and Vanadzor, Nick explained. Roughly one third are youth and NGO development volunteers, and two thirds teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) volunteers. After the mandatory three-month homestay after training, most volunteers move into their own housing and work with local partners to develop and implement projects. Peace Corps Volunteers are welcomed in rural Armenia since they increase opportunities for personal advancement by bringing valuable skills, such as English-language education and organizational training. Young people in these communities are eager to get a good education and participate in programs the Peace Corps offers in conjunction with local organizations. Many of these enrichment programs emphasize creative thinking, including the English-language writing contest held each year called “Write On”.
Nick emphasized that Armenia is rich in human resources although limited in financial or physical resources. The lack of paying jobs for villagers across the rural landscape often leads to seasonal migration to Russia.
In less than a year, Nick had mastered one of the biggest challenges—language acquisition. Today, Nick not only speaks Armenian very well, he reads poetry in Eastern Armenian and delights in humorous Armenian sayings. A popular one he shared with the audience was, “Don’t die donkey, spring will come,” which, depending on tone of voice, can mean what you’d expect, that there is no need to worry, or can mean the exact opposite, that something like the bus you are waiting for will never come.
Last June, Nick was one of the leaders of a project called Border to Border, founded several years ago. Groups of volunteers, a mix of Peace Corps and local youth, hike across Armenia taking different routes and stopping along the way to teach classes focused on healthy living to youth.
Nick and his organization also initiated a four-day camp in Margahovit named GLAD, Girls Leadership and Development, focusing on mental and emotional health for local girls. The curriculum included yoga, journaling, and seminars focused on team-building, business development and entrepreneurship, artistic and creative expression and environmental responsibility. An important phase of the project is follow up, which includes a monthly club for camp participants to review what they learned and check in with each other on their health, and a monthly seminar at which the participants share skills and practices from the camp with other village youth.
Peace Corps has also developed programs targeted for boys including TOBE, Teaching Our Boys Excellence. The internet has made communications much easier for remote villages and can now be used to teach organizational skills and collect data to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs.
Nick inspired the audience, as was evident during Q and A when several people asked about opportunities to volunteer in Armenia. In addition to Peace Corps, he described many ways to volunteer, chief among them Armenia Volunteer Corps, which accepts people of all ages, and Birthright Armenia. Nick has also worked in Armenia with US-based nonprofits like the Armenia Tree Project. In addition, mentorship programs are springing up, including a new AGBU program of cooperation between the Diaspora and Armenia called Bridges for CSOs. The positive response to Nick’s talk at NAASR showed the importance of presentations like this, offering ways for the Peace Corps in Armenia to connect with the Diaspora and for the Diaspora to learn about connecting directly with Armenia.
To learn more about Nick’s experiences with Peace Corps in Armenia and to read more of his favorite Armenian sayings about donkeys, check out his blog: https://nickinarmenia.wordpress.com/