Larisa Ryan: “I want to see an Armenia that provides equal opportunities for an education”

Larisa Ryan returned to Armenia in 2013, but she has always felt like she was born and raised in Armenia. With the aspiration to help the homeland and see it more prosperous in the future, Larisa created the Teach for Armenia Program, which also effectively accomplishes its mission today. Hayern Aysor’s correspondent talked about the past, the program and the possible reforms in Armenia’s educational system with the Armenian gifted with the unique qualities of a leader.

Hayern Aysor: Larisa, you are Armenia and Irish. How were your parents able to get married during the years of intolerance in the USSR? Where were you born and raised?

Larisa Ryan: My mother’s side is from Artsakh, and my father’s side is from Ireland, but the members of my father’s extended family were born in the USA and lived there for many years (almost a couple of generations). My parents met at Moscow State University 30 years ago, and that is where their love story began. However, my mother was a citizen of the USSR, and my father was a U.S. citizen. Those were the years of the Cold War, political intolerance and difficulties with making a marriage official. So, I was born in Armenia, but three months later, we moved to the USA. For five years, my family and I lived in California. Later, my father’s job brought us to the Russian Federation, but we were always connected to the homeland.

Every summer, my mother would bring me and my sister to Yerevan to see our grandmother. At the time, she was one of the most well-known professors at Yerevan State Linguistic University named after Valery Bryusov. However, not only philology and linguistics, but also literature runs in our genes. My grandfather, one of the famous writers of Artsakh, Leonid Hurunts, had already died, but I have heard about him from mother, grandmother and others very often. Now one of my goals is to make him popular again and keep his memory alive. Perhaps it was those strong genes that connected me to the homeland in a way that I can’t describe.

I would fall in love with my native land every summer. Even now, as I take a look back, I realize that I had loved Armenia completely since then, including the good and bad sides, the strengths and weaknesses, but also the safety and the sweetness. It is a true, not an imaginary love. Perhaps this is the reason why I have never really felt like a Diaspora Armenian. I have always had the nice and beautiful feeling that I was born and raised here and that I share the joy and pain and difficulties here.

Hayern Aysor: So, it is safe to say that the gene of an Armenian is more than dominant. Nevertheless, how much of an impact has Irish culture and civilization had on your type and quality as a full-grown human being?

L. R.: Yes, I am Armenian with heart and soul. I want to live and create for the welfare of my homeland. I also feel Irish to the same extent, and perhaps it is because, as I mentioned, my father’s side lived in the USA and had no connection to Ireland. We didn’t speak in Irish, and not using the language is a great contributing factor for detachment from culture and reality. However, whenever I listen to Irish national music, I feel something move in my soul. I feel familiarity. After all, genes don’t die. I would like to further discover my Irish roots and get to know that side of my history as well.

Hayern Aysor: Larisa, I know you had a different vision for the future and imagined yourself in a totally different sphere when you were a student. How did you get involved in the Teach for America Program and what did you get out of it?

L. R. I am quite creative, and I always thought that I had to become a professional in business by creating. I have studied international business, which I am still interested in. I have learned about graphic design and have studied French. However, there came a point when I realized that I wanted to change my life a little, discover myself in another sphere, in another reality and seek other opportunities.

It was during that search when I found out about the Teach For America Program, which is aimed at finding the top professionals from different spheres, select them through a special advanced procedure and send them to the most problematic schools in the USA to teach. Every year, over 50,000 people apply for this program, but only the best are selected. I didn’t have high hopes, but the program’s directors saw in me the personal attributes and professional qualities that met their standards, and I started working with special children.

Those two years were emotionally, physically and psychologically hard for me, but I found the will and energy in me to do what many considered impossible. When you enter a school and work with students who don’t think they have a future, and you prove them the opposite in two years, you become convinced that there are few things in this world that will remain impossible, if there is a real desire and aspiration. I can consider the awareness of this one of my greatest achievements.

Hayern Aysor: How did you come up with the idea of Teach for Armenia Program? What difficulties did you face in Armenia? How did you establish it as an Armenia-based local organization?

L. R.: I was working in the States, but I was constantly saying to myself that the children of my country also need such an education. I asked myself why I couldn’t use that resource in Armenia for the current and future generations, and that brought me here.

People in Armenia blame others a lot. Of course, there are difficulties, but you can’t help yourself, your family and society by blaming others. Many don’t realize the importance of their decisions and the duty they have to their country. People don’t create bridges between each other a lot, are not united, and therefore, the work is not efficient very often. Our program proved that we can achieve results through unity and teamwork. First, they referred to us as idealists and romantics, but very soon, our program became a link between very active and creative youth. By bringing together innovative leaders, the Teach for Armenia Program provides young professionals with the opportunity to make their wishes come true, to show their dedication and to accomplish their missions. We found professionals who became devoted to their job after two years of mainly working at public schools where the children lack the same opportunities for a quality education that their peers do. All the participants of the program take full responsibility for accomplishing their goals, and we work closely with them and encourage them to enhance their innovative skills. So, the mission of our program is to improve the quality of education for all children of Armenia by engaging and training special individuals who will be ready to teach at schools lacking teachers for at least two years. This program is a localized and merely Armenian program, the participants of which are from Yerevan, the provinces, Artsakh and the Diaspora.

Hayern Aysor: Larisa, how do you select the participants? What personal attributes and professional qualities should they have?

L. R.: Applicants must have at least a Bachelor’s Degree. There is no age limit, but I must say that young people are the main applicants, and that is clear. They must have the qualities of a leader, be enterprising and a seeking individual, as well as love their job and their homeland. They must shape the image of an exemplary teacher in them. After two years of teaching, they become the ambassadors of the Teach for Armenia Program, the frontrunners establishing equal educational opportunities with new thoughts and ideas, and human resources lie at the core of their ideas.

Hayern Aysor: Besides the lack of qualified and necessary professionals, what other problems do public schools face today? How can those problems be solved?

L. R.: Armenian children highly appreciate a good teacher and attach importance to a good teacher’s role in their lives. It is very important with whom children spend half of their day, and what human values and attributes the teacher conveys to them. The student must come first. Let’s take the example of Finland. The Finns attach great importance to the opportunity for a student to receive a good education and select the best professionals who must work with each student individually. They shouldn’t focus on the grade. They must help the child learn how to analyze and criticize. Children must start understanding their duties to the environment, the homeland and themselves. In regard to this, the main task is that of the teacher.

Fortunately, Armenian families still attach importance to the role of education. It is part of our history. In the States, that is not always the prevailing approach.

Hayern Aysor: Larisa, when will you consider your mission in Armenia accomplished?

L. R.: When I see an Armenia where all children have the opportunity to discover their potential and capabilities by receiving a brilliant education, regardless of age, social and economic conditions and geographical location. I hope to see that in my lifetime.

Hayern Aysor: Larisa, thank you for this interview and for your self-dedicated efforts. I wish you more success and achievements.

Amalya Karapetyan

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