The actual beginning was in 1971. A new Central Executive (CE) of the Armenian Youth Federation had been elected during a summertime national convention in Chicago. During the summer months prior to the Olympics, the CE was very focused on the implementation of the resolutions passed by the delegates. There were four major areas of focus: athletics, political activities, education and the juniors. I was honored to serve that year with an incredibly committed young woman named Mary Mooradian. She had a vision for the juniors that she presented in the fall of 1971. The Olympics in Boston had concluded, and the work for the coming year was in front of us. Many of the members on that CE were young college students with little experience but possessed a boatload of passion. I still remember the meeting where Mary told us to imagine a long weekend of education, socialization and identity building for our juniors. It was a new idea, and she named it the National Juniors Seminar. When you are blazing a new trail, it is not always clear whether the concept will survive, and the idea will simply have run its course in a few years. Mary operated with such conviction about this idea that she galvanized the followers and the silent skeptics together. A superb organizer, she addressed every possible detail as she articulated a plan for the seminar. It would be held on Memorial Day weekend. The weather was acceptable to use Camp Haiastan, and it would be held before the start of the camping season. Mary was astute at “connecting the dots” by creating a bridge between regional Winter Olympics and the Camp Haiastan season. There was some concern about the impact on the midwest region by holding it in the northeast, but proof of concept would best be managed at the Camp. In those days, the Camp could handle less than 100 people between juniors and staff. The updates from Mary on the seminar were the highlights of our CE meetings over the winter and the early spring. This was an exciting time in the AYF with our well-established athletic programs and the development of AYF-sponsored political activism. The AYF has always done an excellent job of empowering young people to take on significant responsibilities. The result has been the maturing of our youth and acquisition of life skills such as project management, interpersonal relations and problem solving. The planning and implementation of that first seminar was a case study of these attributes.
Roles were identified: lecturers, counselors and kitchen volunteers were plentiful. The breakout groups focused on modern history, Hai Tahd and identity in the diaspora. There was ample opportunity for athletics and socializing. It would be an understatement to call the first seminar a success. It was a life-changing event. The impact on the lives of the juniors and seniors was off the charts. Participants came from a variety of geographies and added to the relationship base that is a hallmark of the AYF. I would hear juniors say they “would see you at camp” and “couldn’t wait for the next seminar.” The decision on continuity had been made by the participants.
I have always admired those with the “idea” and the passion to implement. Mary was unique in her idea creation and her relentless ability to deliver that vision. Waiting in the wings on the depth chart was Mike Najarian to embrace the concept, expand it and complete its institutionalization. With the leadership of Michael came the ever-present support of his brothers and dear parents. The Najarian homestead in Waltham during the 70s was the AYF version of a visitors center and hostel. We must never forget the impact of our parents and their commitment to their children and hospitality. After a few years, the seminar had outgrown the capacity of Camp. Mike had wisely been working with the midwest chapters to introduce the necessity of travel toward the east in order to make national events successful. He convinced them that their participation was essential to the national seminar concept. At the same time, he encouraged the New Englanders that we all have to travel to keep the program fair and balanced. As a result, the seminar spent a few years in Ohio and later in Pennsylvania at rented summer camps to meet the geographic and capacity needs of this major program. This was when the seminar exploded to the 300+ participant level that we have become accustomed to. I remember as staff members, we would try to arrive before the juniors to tend to some of the organizing. There was no better sight to witness than numerous buses rolling in from the midwest and New England with hundreds of juniors on-board. When working in the midst of all these wonderful kids, it was the first time we may have said that Turkey completely failed. This was before the independence of Armenia and Artsakh in 1991. Political programming in the AYF was significant, and the seminar has contributed to the anticipated strong future of our journey for justice. Some of those early participants are now in their 60s and have gone on to a life of service to the Armenian nation. They have served our church and our organizations, worked for the Hai Tahd and raised children to continue the process. Seeing those young juniors absorb the experience like a sponge was proof that the AYF and the Seminar have the correct recipe. Most of what we do in our communities is intended to motivate individuals to seek out additional knowledge and participation. In a three- to four-day weekend, many of these juniors return with a new level of identity as they are emotionally inspired. The seminar creates a “little Armenia” where all aspects of your ethnic identity in the diaspora can be explored. It is a powerful formula. The last 20-plus years have had the additional opportunity to integrate the homeland into the teachings and experience. This makes it an even more complete encounter.
I have had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with some of the AYF leadership in the last few years. Anyone of my generation would be proud to know these young people. Their level of knowledge, maturity and commitment is very impressive. They are adding important value with the organization’s work in Armenia, activism and use of social media to expand the base. The National Junior Seminar passed the tests of survival in its early days in the 70s with ease. The reason is simple; it is a concept that adds value to the AYF mission and to individual participants. There are very few ideas that overcome the test of time unless they can identify with that generation and satisfy some needs. When one thinks of the AYF, there are iconic institutions with the Olympics and Camp Haiastan. The Junior Seminar, which just marked its 50th year, has joined its two older sisters in creating a trifecta of excellence.
I have also found the AYF of today interested in its history and the environment of its earlier days. This is a sign of the respect they have for the organization and for those who came before them. We should never underestimate the importance of that level of maturity. Tradition simply for the sake of tradition can lead to stagnation. When a tradition contains multi-generational value, it can become a pillar to an institution. This is the position the Junior Seminar holds in the AYF today. It has a magnetic appeal that attracts hundreds of our children towards building a solid identity with their heritage. In the diaspora, establishing a sustained Armenian identity is eventually a choice that we all make. The role of our community and organization structure is to influence that decision with education, emotional ties and socialization. We fill their minds with knowledge and their hearts with identity with the hope that they become a functioning participant in the global Armenian nation.
The generations of leaders in the AYF over the last 50 years should be congratulated for the amazing impact of the National Junior Seminar. It represents the best the AYF has to offer in terms of knowledge acquisition, emotional identity and a call to action. During this remarkable run, literally thousands of AYF juniors and seniors have experienced this life-changing weekend during Memorial Day. With a 50-year age range, the various gatekeepers share a common commitment to never rest on the past success. This is the major reason why Seminar has endured. It has adapted to the times to meet the changing needs of our youth. The goal remains the same, but the tactics change to maintain an effective way of communicating. One aspect of the seminar that should not be overlooked is the leadership development success with the attendance of senior members. These young adults take on substantial responsibility in organizing and implementing the food, transportation, programming and safety content of the weekend. It is a valuable experience that serves as a skills development program. Hundreds of these seniors have moved into blossoming professional careers and responsible roles in the Armenian community. For many, the AYF experience was the beginning of a solid foundation.
Mary Mooradian sadly passed away a few years ago. Most of our youth today probably didn’t know her or even her name. I would ask that each of you who have had great memories or experiences at Junior Seminar take a moment and pray for the soul of this AYF visionary. In her earthly life, she was all about giving. Like many of you, in her youth, the AYF was a major recipient of her talents. She went on to contribute to her heritage and faith in a variety of community organizations. She was a clear manifestation of the AYF leadership and participation model. For those who have been the beneficiaries of Junior Seminar, support our youth today. Bring your children into the light with the same drive of your parents and commit yourself to maintaining an important vehicle. A legacy is what we leave for the future. The AYF has become rich in its legacy through the enduring impact of the National Junior Seminar.