BY ANITA TOKATYAN
As the 21-year-old Armenian student looked into the eyes of former President Bill Clinton, she took a moment to comprehend whether this was a dream or reality. “How could I, only a college student and a recent immigrant, meet the president?” she said. “How could I be here today and shake hands with one of the most powerful men in the world?” Suddenly the reality of it all hit her and she realized her calling, her reason, and her purpose for this meeting. Without further thought she reached out to shake Clinton’s hand and realized she only had a minute to say all she could about what mattered most to her and her people. “Mr. President. I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to participate in this conference. As a recent immigrant to the United States, I am literally living the American dream. Thank you for what you’ve done for the Armenians. But my real dream is for the Armenian Genocide to be recognized one day by the American government.”
Nanor Balabanian and her team—Astkhik Hakobyan, Alexandra Basmadjian, and Lilliana Karadavoukian—were one of the few Armenian students invited to participate in Clinton’s 5th Annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), held from March 30 to April 1 in Washington, D.C.
The conference hosted over 1,000 college students from around the world as a means of empowering, connecting, and inspiring their engagement in public service. As the founder of the Hidden Road Initiative (HRI), which aims to connect roads and bridge issues between the children of Akhpradzor Armenia and the rest of the world, Balabanian, along with her three motivated and dedicated peers, represented their development project in Armenia.
“In this big group of 1,000 students and hundreds of different organizations, I could not be more honored to see our Armenian flag shine brightly among the big pool of student exhibits. I could not be more honored of being Armenian and being present,” Balabanian said. “This was not a trip to remember and grieve about the tragedies of the past. This was a trip for us to move forward and build upon the past. This was a trip where we would show President Clinton that Armenians are alive and thriving.”
Through various panelists and speakers, the students learned about how to be better leaders in their community. Panelists included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, world-renowned pop star Usher, the founder of the online networking sensation Twitter, and the founder of Zipcar, as well as many other non-profit and business leaders. The weekend was full of speeches, seminars, and panel discussions.
Astkhik Hakobyan, the HRI director of international operations, was moved by the inspiring and engaging lectures presented at CGI U and felt they were all directed toward HRI. The experience opened her eyes to the different opportunities and endeavors available to her as an individual and as a founding member of HRI.
“A wonderful anthropology professor once told me, ‘Culture is the lens through which we see the world,’” Hakobyan said. “Indeed, this short weekend has polished and refined the lens through which I gather information.”
According to Hakobyan, the most dominant lesson, however, was the importance of learning how to listen to others.
“All of this [our projects] can be done by first listening, absorbing, analyzing, and constructively critiquing,” Hakobyan said, “then by using the resources at our disposal to administer new ideas and plans for action.”
Lilliana Karadavoukian, the HRI fundraising manager, said she felt her commitment to HRI was strengthened through her participation in CGI U. The environment of growth and innovation struck her personally and sparked her ideas concerning HRI’s future.
“Networking with a thousand other student leaders…inspired us to work even harder,” Karadavoukian said. “A surrounding of such ambitious individuals was so infectious…it makes me want to network, innovate, and plan for more projects.”
Although the students felt they gained valuable information from CGI U, Karadavoukian was disappointed that Armenia was not covered in the “Preventing Human Genocides and Mass Atrocities” workshop. As an Armenian, Karadavoukian felt that history of genocides should be better recognized.
“They mentioned one word of the Holocaust, went over very briefly the genocide in Bosnia,” Karadavoukian said. “And no word over the Armenian Genocide, which was the core root of all the other genocides that occurred throughout history.”
Nevertheless, the students worked together to develop a comprehensive “commitment to action.” This commitment requires them to build upon their development project in the rural village of Akhpradzor, Armenia. Last year, Balabanian led a team of UCSB, Yerevan State University, and Stanford students to build a computer lab, bring internet connectivity, and run an educational camp that included classes in computer, health, English, sports, and arts. The reason behind this project was to provide avenues of communication and commerce for villagers who are isolated for six months every winter due to snow. The long-term goals of their project are for the internet to be used to create new jobs in the village, provide access to tele-medicine, and give new resources for education. Meanwhile in the U.S., the team holds various fundraisers to provide basic needs, such as winter coats and sturdy shoes, for the village children.
“What makes our team thrive is the dedicated individuals who take part in the Hidden Road Initiative. Our 20 members at UCSB come from a variety of majors, bringing with them skills that move the organization forward,” Balabanian said. “Leading HRI has led me to believe that Armenian college students have the ability to make a tremendous impact.”
This idea was reinforced in the students when they had the opportunity to meet the ABC foreign correspondent in Dubai, Lara Setrakian, who also was a speaker at CGI U. Upon meeting Setrakian the students were motivated by her experiences and wise words. “During our meeting, Lara covered three main unforgettable points,” Karadavoukian said. “First, the importance of our contribution to society as individuals; second, the importance of our identity as an Armenian and our role in the diaspora; third, the importance of being an Armenian woman in today’s society and our role in public service.”
Setrakian’s effect on the students changed their perception of the abilities and opportunities to evoke change in Armenia and the world. The HRI director of development, Alexandra Basmadjian, felt uplifted by the experience of meeting someone who redefined the notion of overcoming limitations in life, and pursuing not only the impossible but also the unimaginable.
“Her genuineness was beaming as she overflowed with words of wisdom and advice,” Basmadjian said. “She has become my new source of strength, motivation, and passion.”
The presence of encouraging leaders and students raised the bar on the capabilities of these students to engage in public service on both large and small scales. To emerge successful in their attempts for positive change and to redefine the meaning of possibility, the participants were asked the big question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?
The inviting atmosphere of experience and leadership provided the students a new outlook toward their personal and global goals: abandoning limitations and pressures, and driving forward with their imaginations.
“In a group of 1,000 motivated and dedicated students from around the world, we not only found a new Armenia, but we started building one as well,” Balabanian said.
For more information, visit www.hiddenroadinitiative.com.