FOMBELL, Penn.—Armed with the innately indomitable spirit of the Armenian people, hundreds of young people from the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Eastern Region traveled to western Pennsylvania over Memorial Day weekend for an enlightening and immersive educational experience during the organization’s 48th annual Junior Seminar.
A beloved tradition, Junior Seminar is considered the largest event of the year for the AYF’s junior members (ages 10 to 16), and this year’s turnout was simply unprecedented. Early Friday morning, a total of 275 juniors and 100 seniors from across the eastern region packed their sleeping bags, toothbrushes and even their favorite cereal boxes for a road trip unlike any other. Their final destination was Camp Kon-O-Kwee—a new campground for the fraternal organization that has seen nothing but continuous growth throughout its 13 chapters.
This year, the Armenian Youth Foundation sponsored 83 first-time Junior Seminar attendees. “I have heard so much about Junior Seminar, and this year it was my turn to see what it is all about,” said Tiffany Selverian from the Philadelphia “Papken Suni” Chapter. For many of these young people, this was their first weekend away from home, so the responsibility was on the seniors to help them navigate past the nerves and get the most out of the experience. “Having first time campers makes your job as a counselor even more important because you have the chance to influence the camper’s entire experience of seminar and often of the AYF,” said Katia Ariyan from the New Jersey “Arsen” Chapter.
Founded in 1933, the AYF is grounded by five important pillars that are designed to shape these young people into future leaders in the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF): Educational, Hai Tahd, Social, Athletic and Cultural.
This year’s theme ‘The First Step’ (Առաջին Քայլը) promised to explore the instrumental efforts of community leaders in the AYF and ARF and inspire the young members to take the initiative and envision their own path for future change. “We don’t necessarily talk about how we got here,” explained Ani Khatchadourian, a thirteen-year member of the AYF and one of eight members of the 2019 Junior Seminar Council (JSC). “We didn’t do this alone.”
Since the primary focus of the long weekend was to strengthen the educational initiatives of the AYF, the JSC organized a series of lectures presented by notable figures in the Armenian community.
Michael Varadian, a member of the AYF Olympics Governing Body, presented the history of the AYF Olympics, which is scheduled to take place in Chicago this year over Labor Day weekend. Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) spoke about activism and how Armenians can work together to strengthen their positions in the American political system. Hamparian’s colleague and ANCA Communications Director Elizabeth Chouldjian unpacked the Armenian government with a collaborative pop quiz. During her presentation, Verginie Touloumian, the International Executive Director of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), highlighted several key female figures from Armenian history. ANCA Communications Coordinator Dickran Khodanian presented on education, while Yervant Kachichian helped his young groups produce their own social media video campaigns. Longtime ARF member Greg Bedian discussed Armenians’ immigration patterns and the ARF’s role in shaping immigrant communities. Columbia University professor Dr. Kim Hekimian presented on healthcare, while Chicago’s Sahak Zakarian demonstrated the art of Armenian dance. ARF member Zohrab Khaligian offered an informative lecture on the beginnings of the AYF; Anto Avedissian, who just attended his 20th AYF Junior Seminar, delivered an in-depth history lesson on ARF hero Aram Manoukian. In her call to action, Weekly assistant editor Leeza Arakelian motivated a potential army of junior reporters to lend their storytelling abilities and revive the AYF’s consistent presence in the newspaper. Representing the Weekly’s west coast counterpart Asbarez, English editor Ara Khachatourian was compelled by the ARF’s revolutionary ideals and used his presentation to instill the understanding that anyone with vision and a sense of idealism can impact change.
The Leaders in Training (LIT) Program is also a critical aspect of the Junior Seminar experience. Senior members of the AYF (17 year olds) shadow experienced senior counselors and sit in on private lectures designed to teach fundamental leadership skills in the AYF and beyond. Kevork Chavoush Mesrobian of the ARF New Jersey “Dro” gomideyutyun was at the helm of this program.
For the first time this year, the ARF Central Committee (CC) of the Eastern Region hosted one of its meetings on-site at Junior Seminar. “It seemed natural to hold such a meeting during Junior Seminar weekend to allow for the CC to interact more closely with members of its youth organization,” said Chair George Aghjayan, elaborating on the unique synergy from the monumental weekend. “The kids get a better sense of their leadership and, in turn, the leadership gets vital energy from the youth.”
In addition to educational lectures, the young people participated in a variety of organized games during their night activities including ‘Name That Armenian Hit’ and Jeopardy—Armenian style. “You guys are the future of this organization,” exclaimed JSC member Ana Bandazian to the roomful of young people on Saturday night. “When we come together to work for a common cause, our collective presence becomes indisputably visible,” she said to loud cheers.
Shortly after Bandazian’s inspiring message, the young group rose to the occasion in an emotional and magnetic display of Armenian dance. Within seconds, everyone assembled for different variations of shoorch bar and kochari and some, including AYF Central Executive Vice Chair Vrej Dawli and AYF Central Executive liaison Meghri DerVartanian, performed yarkhushta—the Armenian warrior dance.
“All I could think about was Karekin Nejdeh’s first steps in 1933 and the challenge and faith he put forth to the youth,” said DerVartanian to the Weekly. “Seeing more than 400 young Armenians gathered, learning about everything and anything Armenian, dancing to Armenian music, singing our Armenian revolutionary songs side by side, taking their first steps in becoming today’s leaders, I know that we have proved U. Karekin Nejdeh right.”