The American University of Armenia (AUA) is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of AUA pillar, Zaruhy Sara Chitjian, who made a real and lasting impact in the field of education in Armenia through her steadfast support of AUA. Her transformational gift led to the establishment of the Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) at AUA, launching its students into a new competitive sphere.
Zaruhy Sara Chitjian, known to many as Sara, dedicated her life to education, understanding its importance in influencing and shaping young minds. She was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1933 to loving Armenian parents who originally hailed from Western Armenia; her father was from Kharpert and her mother from Malatya. Along with her parents and brother, Sara immigrated to the United States in 1935 where the Chitjian family settled in East Los Angeles, and her father became involved in the real estate business. Although her parents had no formal education, her father found success as an entrepreneur and her mother through her talents as a seamstress.
Sara enrolled at UCLA in 1952 with the full support of her parents; she was one of the few women studying there at the time. She graduated in 1956 with a psychology degree and subsequently enrolled in a special program to receive her teaching credentials as she embarked on a purposeful 40-year career in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
At the Dixie Canyon Elementary School in Sherman Oaks, California, Sara became a pioneer and changed the landscape of the curriculum throughout Los Angeles by becoming the first teacher to raise awareness of Armenian cultural history in LAUSD, going on to establish the Armenian Ethnic Studies program during the Ethnic Studies Movement in 1974. It was her first time teaching the Armenian culture. She found creative ways to engage her students, such as exploring Armenian manuscripts and inviting high quality guest lecturers to shed more light on Armenian history. Among the notable speakers were Dr. Avedis Sanjian, Dr. Richard Hovannisian, Dr. Levon Marashlian, Dr. Oshin Keshishian and Dr. J. Michael Hagopian, who lectured on everything from Armenian music and instruments to Armenian architecture and the Armenian Genocide. She also successfully petitioned textbook companies to include sections on the Armenian Genocide and for the City of Los Angeles to make April 24th an excusable day of absence on the school district’s academic calendar.
A lifelong Los Angeles resident, Sara knew first-hand the significance of education and technology and its potential to catapult Armenia’s intelligent youth onto an international level. She chose to support the establishment of EPIC at AUA, a start-up venture incubator that promotes entrepreneurship and collaboration, understanding full well that it would be through the advent of technology that Armenia could develop into a key player economically. Her contribution was made in memory of her parents, Hampartzoum and Ovsanna Chitjian, who were both Armenian Genocide survivors. “My mother had a saying that described Armenians very well: hechen pan guh hanen – out of nothing, they create something because Armenians are very intelligent,” said Sara when she previously spoke to AUA from her home in Los Angeles. Aware of Armenia’s landlocked position, Sara remembered this adage when she decided to be an early supporter of technology in Armenia. “I feel Armenians have the ability to create something very unique because Armenians have that type of brain. When someone asks who made a great invention, I want the response to be that an Armenian made it,” she added.
Her support for EPIC was unwavering and in 2019, she funded a 10-day experience for a group of AUA students to visit Silicon Valley, organized in partnership with San Jose State University (SJSU). On this once-in-a-lifetime trip, students visited cutting-edge technology companies, interacted with entrepreneurs, and participated in workshops and seminars with world leaders in innovation, business, and the tech ecosystem. “I want Armenians to produce something that will be recognized worldwide and I know there is potential with AUA students,” she said. “I am very impressed when I hear about what the students are doing and my hope is that through my gift, they will be able to produce something unique that will benefit the country. As Armenians, we have many reasons to be unique, given our situation and history. We needed to be clever to survive, and I’m optimistic about the future of both Armenia and AUA.” Her major contributions to EPIC allow it to continue as a hub of innovation and technology, providing young entrepreneurs with many opportunities and resources necessary to succeed.
In memory of her parents and survivors of the Armenian Genocide, Sara also founded the Hampartzoum and Ovsanna Chitjian Foundation to support Armenian Studies programs in Higher Education. Over the last decade, she established endowments at leading universities, including the University of Southern California (USC), University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and the American University of Armenia (AUA). Her decision to champion Armenian Studies research was done to ensure that the next generation remains educated and aware of the Armenian people and of the Armenian Genocide. “Understanding history should be understood by whose eyes recorded it,” was Sara’s ideology, who made it her life’s mission to focus on Armenian education. “We have lost so much land throughout our history but as Armenians we have a rich heritage that we continue on to this day. Education will help Armenia develop and will make the world aware of us,” said Sara. “As the offspring of Armenian Genocide survivors, it is my duty to carry on our history and our legacy and pass it onto the next generation.”
Though Sara has passed on, her passion for her heritage, and her tremendous efforts to support students at AUA will always carry on. In a few final endearing remarks, EPIC’s founding director Dr. Armen Mkrtchyan, who interacted quite closely with Sara, adds, “Sara Chitjian was a genuinely caring and dynamic individual who has touched hundreds of young minds through enabling and supporting EPIC. She was humble with an insatiable curiosity and appetite to help Armenia and Armenians succeed. She enjoyed empowering the younger generation to be more creative and tech savvy. We will miss Ms. Chitjian and work hard to make her legacy proud.”
We are grateful for her life of service and will forever hold her dear in our hearts.