Linda Shahinian, a Native Angeleno, Contributes Her Talents to AUA’s Acopian Center for the Environment5 min read
YEREVAN, Armenia – Linda Shahinian, along with her husband, Herb Schiff, was on a visit to Armenia in May 2014 when the long-retired couple met AUA Acopian Center for the Environment’s (ACE) Alen Amirkhanian at a dinner party. Amirkhanian invited Shahinian and Schiff to visit AUA and the Center, which promotes the protection and restoration of the natural environment through research, education, and community outreach.
ACE was founded in 1992 by Sarkis Acopian as a center overseeing research and academic programs. From the very beginning, it was the Center’s aim to protect Armenia’s biodiversity and natural resources through research, education, and public involvement.
“The Center is such a valuable asset for Armenia. I love the idea that there is a center such as ACE at AUA that studies Armenia’s environment, and how to protect it and keep it healthy. This is so important for ecotourism too,” the energetic Shahinian continued, alluding to a project that she was involved in at the Center.
“That’s when we were impressed. Alen is a very bright, very bright guy,” Shahinian recounted during an interview that her husband also took part in. “Alen is very impressive,” Schiff chimed in. The Center’s activities, based on its interests in environmental policy, in sustainable natural resource management, on built environment and the natural environment, and on information technology and the natural environment, appealed to Shahinian and Schiff. That year, they decided to donate towards the Center’s work.
The Center’s appeal was such that Shahinian decided to join Amirkhanian’s team as a volunteer. She returned with her husband to Armenia in September 2015 to spend six weeks at AUA’s ACE.
But Shahinian did not jump into this opportunity right away. There were some important details to attend to, such as what Schiff would be doing while Shahinian volunteered at ACE. The equally energetic Schiff wanted to keep busy as well. “I had to find something to do in order to stay out of trouble,” he added mischievously. Being a man of many interests, among them archeology, with the assistance of the Armenian Volunteer Corps, he was able to join an archeological dig at Karmir Blur, where an Urartian burial site was recently discovered and is being actively excavated and studied.
The couple’s initial trip to Armenia in 2014 that led to a world of new possibilities and experiences was Schiff’s first. But it was Shahinian’s second to her homeland. She had visited in 1970 during the Soviet period.
“The country didn’t feel so Armenian back then,” Shahinian said, but she warmed to the idea of visiting Armenia again when she started hearing encouraging stories once Armenian independence came in 1991. An increasing flow of Diasporans visiting Armenia returned and shared stories of positive experiences. The stories reached Los Angeles, Shahinian’s hometown, and reignited her interest in traveling to Armenia. But this time, Schiff, a self-described “ABC” (Armenian by Choice) whom she married in 1982, would accompany her.
“Yerevan is lively now. There’s nightlife and flowers along the streets. We really liked it and decided that we’d come back as volunteers,” Shahinian said.
Both Shahinian and Schiff have a long history of doing eclectic work, as they retired early thanks to their successful advertising and marketing company that represented magazines in the film, broadcast, and recording industries. In addition to her past advertising career, Shahinian is currently active teaching a course through UCLA and has also been involved in city government in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City. Schiff, on the other hand, has been a volunteer at La Brea Tar Pits and the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles, as well as the Los Angeles Zoo, among other activities.
Volunteer work in Armenia seems to complement the couple’s life perfectly. While Schiff, who credits his wife for giving him a “really good Armenian education,” traveled daily to Karmir Blur, Shahinian’s work at ACE consisted of programming a one-day networking conference on ecotourism in Armenia. The objective of the conference, provisionally scheduled for winter 2016, is to serve as a clearinghouse for various stakeholders, to encourage them to share their ideas, resources, and experiences, enhancing the collective outcome of the individual efforts. “This is a major project,” Shahinian said.
In addition, Shahinian, who holds a degree in English and did her graduate program in social work, was also asked to help improve the English writing skills of the Center’s staff. As she was experienced in editing and teaching literacy, Shahinian enjoyed this task as well. She also proofread a textbook, a formidable 407-pages long, on green architecture.
But, most of all, Shahinian seems to have fallen in love with the people of Armenia. “The kindnesses of the people here, in some ways, the surprising kindness…” she began and interrupted herself as she tried to contextualize her story. “Smiling is just not something people do here, until you engage them. It’s an old Soviet hand-me-down perhaps. But once you engage someone, they’ll literally go blocks out of their way. If you ask, ‘vorteghe?’ if you’re looking for something, they’ll take you, they’ll just take you, and then go about their business,” Shahinian said with a tinge of premature nostalgia.
“It’s just that very human connection. There’s this warmth. It’s a small community. A lot of people we know are Diasporans. But to meet ‘Yerevantsis’ or ‘Gyumretsis’…Initially, there is this coolness. But there’s eventually just this wonderful kindness and warmth. Gyumretsis are incredibly proud of their town. There’s real depth and I think the fact that you do engage people, it’s almost like you’re saying, ‘It’s okay to smile. It’s okay to be friendly’.”
Shahinian made sure to visit Gyumri as well. Her father was born there but, as a child, moved to Los Angeles his family in 1923. Her mother, though born in Fresno, California, came from an Armenian family whose roots are in Kharpert, present-day Turkey.
Shahinian, who grew up in “a pretty Armenian family,” attending Armenian church and activities, is intent on coming back to Armenia next year and is looking for new adventures in the Armenian landscape.
Schiff’s human experiences in Armenia were similarly heart-warming. Their locus, however, was Yerevan’s public transportation system, which he used daily to go to Karmir Blur in a nearby suburb of Yerevan. Herb developed a touching relationship with a little girl and several of her family’s matriarchs who would ride the marshrutka, the public van that Herb used every morning.
Following polite greetings and pleasantries in English, Schiff and the girl would quickly settle into a more practical routine. Schiff would gently ask, “Will you help me with my Armenian today?” The little girl, who knew English from school, would eagerly agree to the amusement of all the passengers. The marshrutka riders would eavesdrop as the little girl taught Schiff words such as gaang (skull) and voskor (bone), words of little practical use to anyone but Herb, who was on his way to yet another archeological adventure.
“Children in Armenia are something wonderfully special for me. I loved the bones, and the archeology is fantastic. But, from a human standpoint, that experience with the little girl was really nice,” Schiff, whose own family is of Polish Jewish ancestry from a region that currently lies in Belarus, said.
Before returning to Armenia next year, Schiff has decided that he would improve his Armenian, which would be critical to fully experience the social dimensions of living in Yerevan. He is exploring connections with the Yerevan Zoo, which is currently undergoing a major overhaul. Schiff may help with a docent program there, as he has extensive experience as a volunteer with the docent program at the Los Angeles Zoo.
A smiling Shahinian is not sure what adventures to pursue next year, but she knows one thing for certain, “It’s been a great experience. The highlight of my trip was working with the people at ACE. It was remarkable to me how bright and dedicated they are.”
Founded in 1991, the American University of Armenia (AUA) is a private, independent university located in Yerevan, Armenia and affiliated with the University of California. AUA provides a global education in Armenia and the region, offering high-quality, graduate and undergraduate studies, encouraging civic engagement, and promoting public service and democratic values.