An historic weekend was celebrated by the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), beginning on November 1, with the much-anticipated ribbon cutting ceremony at its new Belmont headquarters. Over 300 people attended the afternoon event on Concord Avenue, including Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and MA State Representative David Muradian. The building, now the NAASR Vartan Gregorian Building, was designed by the SMMA Architecture, Engineering, Interior Design and Site Design Firm, led by President Ara Krafian. “The NAASR headquarters is a very special place,” said Krafian. “It’s informed by 3,000 years of history to inspire contemporary scholars. It’s a building that can call itself Armenian.”
NAASR Executive Director Sarah Ignatius stressed that everyone in the community is a part of the building and the focus of its design. “Look at these spaces and think of them as your own,” said Ignatius. “NAASR’s mission, as you know, is to advance Armenian studies and to build a worldwide community around Armenian culture, history and identity. You don’t have to be Armenian to do that. Think of this as your destination and a place where you can come at any time.”
Gracing the exterior of the building is a magnificent sculpture by famed artist Michael Aram. “I was very inspired by the idea of eternity and how it related to NAASR’s mission to safeguard and preserve our culture, perhaps, we can say, for time and all eternity.” Aram’s sculpture begins with the circle as a reflection of eternity and includes peacocks, feathers, vines and laurel leaves, all designed to symbolize eternal life. In the center is “a simple flower…the petals lilting slightly clockwise to the future, representing progression and growth.” Aram concluded, “In contemplating what eternity meant for me, my realization is that love is eternal, and if we can agree that God is love and that God is all things, then we can agree that the sum of all things is eternity.”
The excitement of the ribbon cutting ceremony continued at the elegant banquet the following day at the Royal Sonesta Boston. The ballroom was humming with the energy of a sold-out event, and the theme for the evening seemed to echo the previous day’s with numerous expressions of gratitude and cause for celebration.
“Constructing a building is a gift from the past and present to the future,” said emcee David Ignatius, associate editor and columnist for the Washington Post. Ignatius acknowledged several honored guests and dignitaries present, including H.E. Varuzhan Nersesyan, Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to the US, Mher Margaryan, Armenia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun, Harvard University president Lawrence Bacow, San Jose State University president Mary A. Papazian, former Boston University president Dr. Aram Chobanian, former American University of Armenia president Bruce Boghosian and honoree Dr. Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University.
Ignatius called NAASR’s new headquarters “a place where we can bring our children, our grandchildren, and their children, if we live that long, to understand the culture and history of our Armenian heritage.”
This sentiment was echoed by the chairman of NAASR’s board, Yervant Chekijian, who proceeded to thank everyone in attendance for their generosity and support for the association’s 65th anniversary and inauguration of the new building. Chekijian acknowledged Edward and Pamela Avedisian as the principal donors of the building and “for naming the building, not after themselves, but after one of the most distinguished intellectuals in the world, Vartan Gregorian.” Through the support of many, NAASR raised $6.5 million, with the final cost of the building $7.2 million. Chekijian expressed his hope that by January 2020 there would be no mortgage on the building. The theme of gratitude continued with his presentation of the NAASR Leadership Award to past chairpersons Nancy Kolligian and Raffi Yeghiayan in appreciation for their outstanding commitment and decades of extraordinary dedication and service to NAASR’s mission. Chekijian stressed the new era for NAASR and the next generation while discussing the modern features of the new building. However, he said, “The building only has meaning because of the people who inhabit it. The building is not an end in itself. It is only a platform for all the people who will come together to continue NAASR’s mission. That is where the real future of NAASR is. It’s the people who will inhabit the space to study, collaborate, write and explore our precious heritage.”
NAASR’s mission includes supporting students in their educational and research pursuits. In that vein, the association held an essay contest on the transformative power of education. Students were asked to write about a teacher or a professor who left a positive influence on their lives. Contest winners Lillian Avedian, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and Gurgen Tadevosyan, a senior at New York University (NYU), traveled long distances to attend the banquet—Avedian from Santiago, Chile and Tadevosyan from Abu Dhabi. Each student eloquently delivered their essays for an appreciative audience.
“When I envision a powerful Armenian woman, I see a teacher,” said Avedian. After feeling stifled by her Armenian heritage as a young woman, Avedian had the good fortune to take a class with Dr. Myrna Douzjian at UC Berkeley in her sophomore year where she was introduced to modern Armenian feminist poet Violet Grigoryan. “For me, she placed Armenian literature in front of me as a mirror in which I could see myself reflected for the first time,” recalled Avedian. She began to write voraciously, for the first time feeling as if she could authentically express herself in Armenian. Expressing her admiration of Dr. Douzjian, Avedian said, “I have found my voice, and that voice is indisputably that of a proud, powerful Armenian woman. I owe this immense lifelong gift to Prof. Douzjian for standing in front of a classroom and asserting her own voice, for daring to suggest that Armenian women deserve to be heard, and that when provided the platform, they may transform literary landscapes.”
A student of political theory at NYU, Tadevosyan spoke about his experiences as an Armenian from Yerevan with Prof. Nancy Rosenblum. He expressed it as “manifestation of intimidating admiration.” Through the study of David Thoreau’s account on his refusal to pay taxes, Tadevosyan drew a parallel to the civil disobedience in Armenia and was inspired to study politics and become a teacher in his homeland. Rosenblum taught him to respect and fight for freedom, particularly in Armenia where he could have the most impact. Tadevosyan concluded, “She helped me realize that being an Armenian from Yerevan is what makes me special – I can use my identity to connect the western political thought to what Armenians do subconsciously. She changed my worldview and my future; the way I perceive myself as a thinker and how I want to change my community. I am still intimidated by her. But it is not because I am scared but rather because of how much I admire her.”
A highlight of the evening was a spectacular performance by world-renowned operatic sensation, Isabel Bayrakdarian, who was accompanied by the illustrious Borromeo String Quartet. Bayrakdarian sang several selections by Gomidas on the year marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. “I think the work Gomidas did was to preserve the Armenian soul,” said Bayrakdarian. “These songs are vessels of history, of culture and identity. He created a musical link to our past, which was meant to be completely annihilated.”
Capping off the memorable evening was Edward Avedisian’s introduction of the evening’s honored guest, Dr. Vartan Gregorian. Avedisian, a board director for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), highlighted Gregorian’s storied background, including his refusal to accept the presidency at Columbia University while president of Brown University because “he had given his word that he wouldn’t leave until he raised their endowment to over one billion dollars.” Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, called Avedisian “a stubborn philanthropist” due to his insistence on having Gregorian as the namesake of NAASR’s new headquarters. Gregorian expressed his hopes for Armenia after a recent visit, during which he visited the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian K-12 School and Community Center in Yerevan and was heartened because he “saw the Armenian youth, eager to learn, eager to become and eager to be.” Gregorian concluded his remarks with appreciation for NAASR’s continuing mission and celebrating the new headquarters by stating, “This institution itself is the manifestation of the unity of Armenian efforts.”