The first thing I did this year after graduating from the University of California Irvine with a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering was head straight to Armenia to participate in the AYF Internship in Armenia program. I chose my field of study knowing that I would one day use my education to contribute to the advancement of Armenia’s scientific and technological sectors. Although I grew up in Montebello, CA, devoting myself to the progress and development of Armenia has always been extremely important to me. I attended Montebello’s Armenian Mesrobian school and have been an active member of the AYF “Vahan Cardashian” Montebello Chapter for many years. However, my desire to work in Armenia is owed to the several summers I have spent there with different homeland initiative programs over the years, such as AYF Youth Corps and Camp Javakhk. Being able to contribute to Armenia’s advancement became my motivation throughout my time in university, encouraging me to pursue my education not only as a personal accomplishment, but as one dedicated to my community and country. I have long dreamt about going to Armenia and learning about the ongoing projects in its science and technology sectors. I knew that doing so would allow me to learn how to make future contributions to those fields.
The AYF Internship program was the perfect pathway for me to start my scientific journey in the homeland with my fellow ungers. Exceedingly eager to begin my work, I even skipped my university graduation to be in Armenia as early as possible. I had worked incredibly hard for five years at my university and was anxious to finally get back to my homeland. I was excited to learn from local scientists and share my expertise. Instead, I ultimately found myself rejected by them (a rude awakening for an optimistic diasporan). I was rejected, not because of a lack of merit, but because I am a female engineer in a historically patriarchal society and field.
When I first started working as a research assistant in Armenia, I felt confident that my skills, knowledge and ample experience were clear to my employers and colleagues. As the weeks passed, however, I noticed that I was treated far differently than my male colleagues, some who were still university students with significantly less experience than me. I was consistently assigned less meaningful work than my male counterparts and was often spoken to in a patronizing manner by senior faculty. Eventually, the day came that I could no longer bear the humiliation and disrespect. I went home from work feeling heartbroken. Though I didn’t want to accept the fact, it had finally hit me that the country I had worked so hard for, the cause that motivated me to finish my degree, didn’t value me. And it was because of my gender, something I cannot control. Unfortunately, this is the sad reality for women in STEM in most countries. Though I knew well how persistent the culture of patriarchy was in Armenia from my previous visits, I was still in shock. Being aware of sexism cannot prepare you for the actual experience of dealing with it firsthand. Unfortunately, I was not prepared to face this reality.
The morning after I hit my breaking point, I sat on the marshrutka on my way to work feeling apprehensive and discouraged. I felt no motivation to contribute to the research I was previously excited about and proud of. But it occurred to me that quitting my job and refusing to stand up for myself would not only result in letting myself down; it would also surely contribute to the precedent that had been set in the nation. Though it may be difficult, all young women looking to succeed and work in STEM in Armenia need to stand up for themselves, wherever possible. Armenia is losing its full potential to succeed by disregarding half of its population on meaningless grounds. As a people and a nation, we cannot afford to exclude anyone’s talent and expertise if we hope to overcome the many challenges we face today.
Societal change can only happen when we clearly identify our society’s illnesses and expose its flaws. I believe that interpersonal experiences and relationships will contribute to the necessary exposure our community and society needs. Hard work and persistence can only go unnoticed for so long. For this reason, I decided to persevere, show up and do my best work. In a patriarchal society, women must work harder than men in order to equalize. I will not let this setback stop me from my foundational goal of contributing to Armenia’s scientific and technological sectors. If anything, I am more motivated now than I have ever been. I encourage all Armenian women, in all fields, to demand respect and persevere for themselves and the Armenian cause.