NEW YORK, NY — Students, scholars, young professionals and presenters gathered on Saturday at Columbia University for the 2023 ARS Norian Youth Connect Program. This is the first time in three years that the program has been run in-person.
The program began with introductions by Armenian Relief Society (ARS) of Eastern US board member Barbara-Seda Aghamianz and Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, who has been organizing and leading this program for over a decade. Aghamianz shared a brief history of the ARS, as well as information about its many relief programs to support Armenia, Artsakh, Syria, Lebanon and other communities. She noted that the Youth Connect program began in 1971 and used to be a four-week summertime intensive Armenian educational program. The current model successfully facilitates connection for today’s students and young professionals. She also announced the ARS’ virtual Western Armenian classes for beginners starting on March 14, 2023. They will be held every Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The first scholar to present was Whitney Adana Kite. Kite is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University in the Art History and Archaeology Department specializing in medieval Armenian art and architecture. She holds an M.A. in art history from Tufts University and a B.A. in biological anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “The Lay of the Land: Armenian Monasteries in their Local Landscapes,” explores three medieval monasteries (Horomos, Geghard and Tatev) in the context of their topography. Last summer, Kite was a Lily Residential Scholar at the Library of Congress in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED).
Kite’s presentation for Youth Connect was titled “The Mystery of the Menologium.” A Menologium is a calendar that also documents the lives of saints. Kite recounted her process for identifying six folios that were found at the Library of Congress with no context or information. As an art historian, Kite is trained to look at details in art and manuscripts, such as pigment colors, stylization of letters and form that may provide clues to identify the work of art. After photographing the folios from many angles to document these details accurately, she then looked through hundreds of images that have already been cataloged online and in books to find those with a similar style to the ones she is trying to identify. Through this process, she was able to find the manuscript that these folios were from and tracked down further information about it in Dublin that included sales records and who the scribe would have been. Kite’s findings are important because they can be “in dialogue” with other images of the time and can also contribute to understanding immigration patterns, trade circumstances and even the impact of politics on art at the time.
Next, Dr. Nareg Seferian presented “Where is the US? Where is Armenia? A Glimpse into Geographical Imagination.” This was Dr. Seferian’s first presentation since completing his Ph.D. at the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Between 2013 and 2016, Seferian served on the faculty of the American University of Armenia after receiving his higher education at Yerevan State University, St. John’s College, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. His doctoral research, supervised by Professor Gerard Toal, investigated the province of Syunik in Armenia in the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War.
Dr. Seferian’s presentation addressed the definition and impact of “geographical imagination,” which is how we perceive or think about a place from our experiences and education. Components include territory and borders, location and relationships and visual discourse (such as maps). Dr. Seferian utilized a hands-on approach to engage attendees by displaying different outlines and images of maps and asking what thoughts and feelings were evoked when looking at each image. As he showed maps of the United States and then Armenia, discourse on the topic evolved into a conversation on identity and geography (with a discussion about terms such as Caucasus, West Asia, Eurasia, Trans Caucasus, South Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Near East and Middle East). The overarching theme was how topographical representation combined with certain labels and education can influence how groups perceive themselves, as well as how others perceive them. These details can impact how disputes and resolutions are handled.
After lunch, Tatevik Khatchatryan provided an overview of the internships and educational programs offered by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
Then, Dr. Vatche Isahagian, senior research scientist and manager at IBM, began his presentation about artificial intelligence (AI). At least 25 percent of the program at Youth Connect each year has had a focus in the sciences in order to provide well-rounded programming. Dr. Isahagian is a senior member of both the IEEE and the ACM. His research spans a broad set of disciplines across distributed systems, machine learning and business processes. This presentation defined the facets of artificial intelligence, which include thinking and acting both humanly and rationally. Dr. Isahagian shared the history of AI and the numerous ways in which human beings utilize it, from machines that operate automatically to conversations with ChatGPT. Upon examining the benefits of AI, such as education, and the negative aspects of AI, such as a lack of filtering information, attendees began discussing the implications of AI for Armenian issues. Concerns were raised about how to prevent the spread of misinformation through chat bots that are unable to critically examine information they collect.
The final discussion on activism, education and justice was facilitated by Dr. Henry Theriault, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Worcester State University, and Dr. Lalai Manjikian, Humanities Professor at Vanier College in Montreal. Dr. Theriault’s research focuses on genocide denial, genocide prevention, post-genocide victim-perpetrator relations, reparations and mass violence against women and girls. He served two terms as president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and is founding co-editor of the peer-reviewed journal Genocide Studies International. Dr. Manjikian holds a Ph.D. in communication studies from McGill University (2013). Her primary teaching and research interests are in the areas of immigration and refugee studies, media representations of migration, the ethics of migration and migrant narratives. Dr. Manjikian also serves as a board member for the Foundation for Genocide Education.
During this session, attendees discussed how to effectively engage in activism for current Armenian issues, specifically through the lens of healing trauma in order to not only survive but thrive. Attendees and facilitators tackled questions of how to create global cohesion for Armenians, how to best listen and learn from each other, how to remain focused on the work long-term, even if results are not immediately seen, and where individual and collective efforts are best utilized. The overarching theme is that Armenians should be working toward a sense of security for ourselves and the region as a whole to live in peace.
At the end of the day, attendees were able to provide feedback about the program and continue to learn from each other and build connections over dinner. These young adults leave the program with new information and inspiration to return to their home communities and contribute to the work being done to help Armenians around the globe.