Honoring the Past, Empowering the Future

4 min read

YEREVAN, Armenia – In April 2015, Ara and Laura Dirtadian established the Elia Kahvedjian & Arakel Dirtadian Scholarship at the American University of Armenia (AUA) as a way of honoring the memory of their respective grandfathers. The first scholarship recipient is Lilia Mamikonyan, an undergraduate Computer Science major. This is their story.

Laura Dirtadian grew up in North America, far from her grandfather, Elia Kahvedjian, the famous photographer. Elia was one of the many children orphaned by the Armenian Genocide. Though he lost everything, Elia was one of the fortunate ones; he survived by the generosity of a passerby who took him in while the rest of his family was being slaughtered in the desert. Once out of harm’s way, Elia found himself in Jerusalem, where he remained until his death in 1999.

Though Laura only met her grandfather twice, she was shaped by the tales of his harrowing journey. “It was my mother who shared with my brother and I the horrific events of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, relayed to her by her dad,” explained Laura. “I believe that the recounting of these events define the person I am today.” Laura’s husband, Ara Dirtadian, grew up hearing similar stories about his own grandfather, Arakel Dirtadian. Unfortunately, Ara never met his grandfather, as he passed away long before Ara’s birth. Like Laura, Ara never forgot the atrocities his grandfather survived in a time when so much was taken from so many.

In April of 2015, on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, Ara and Laura Dirtadian made a pledge to honor their grandfathers by establishing the Elia Kahvedjian & Arakel Dirtadian Scholarship at the American University of Armenia.

Both Ara and Laura’s grandfathers were great pioneers in their chosen fields. As a photographer, Elia captured the beauty of ordinary moments within Israel. Arakel, who spent the majority of his life after the Genocide in Cairo, became a well-respected math teacher. Since Ara and Laura wanted to honor their grandfathers’ commitment to education while creating opportunities for new Armenian pioneers, they decided their scholarship should support an undergraduate student, specifically a female majoring in Computer Science. “As a woman in technology, I felt it was important to continue to evolve and support diversity in the workforce. Having different perspectives in technology is critical for growth. I see a lot of opportunity in Armenia that can be achieved by both men and women,” shared Laura.

While Ara and Laura were finalizing their scholarship agreement, Lilia Mamikonyan was completing her coursework at Sisian High School in the southern region of Armenia. As an 11th grader, Lilia was selected to participate in the FLEX student exchange program, which allowed her to study in Watertown, New York for one academic year. This experience changed the course of Lilia’s life. “It was the first time I had ever experienced the American education system,” explained Lilia. “I quickly adapted and, after that, AUA became the one and only choice for my undergraduate studies.”

A few short months after Laura and her husband established their scholarship, they received a letter in the mail. Laura excitedly tore open the package to find a heartfelt thank you and photo from Lilia Mamikonyan. “As we read Lilia’s introductory letter, Ara and I knew our contribution was making a difference. That initial letter was special and meaningful— it remains on our fireplace mantel to this day.”

In April of 2017, Laura was invited to moderate a panel at the American University of Armenia’s Conference for the Empowerment of Women and Girls in Armenia. This was Laura’s second trip to Armenia and, though it was filled with highlights and memorable moments, the rest of her trip paled in comparison to when she finally got the chance to meet Lilia. “She walked in and I recognized her immediately. I recall feeling excited to meet her, but I was not expecting tears! I felt absolute gratitude and joy in meeting this intelligent, beautiful young woman who I am convinced is going to achieve big things.”

For Lilia, meeting Laura was a dream come true. “It brought tears to our eyes. Laura is a lovely person, amazing friend and great mentor. Within the short period of time that she was in Yerevan, we enjoyed each other’s company, had great conversations, and inspired each other. It felt as if we had known each other all our lives, rather than just a few days,” said Lilia. “My words alone would never be able to express all the gratitude I feel towards Ara and Laura. They inspired me to reach my goals and dreams. Education is an important asset, the most powerful tool one can ever have. And thanks to Ara and Laura, I am able to walk into a wonderful institution every morning, be surrounded by a friendly, healthy, creative and challenging atmosphere, learn new things every day and grow.”

After their meeting, Laura reflected on the convergence of their paths. “From the stories my husband and I grew up with about our ancestors’ survival, to the lives our parents were able to provide us, despite their own struggles, and now this . . . Ara and I have created a life for ourselves where we have the ability to give back. I want to see Lilia and our country succeed, and I know we will get there, one student at a time.”

Laura plans to return to Armenia with her entire family in 2019 to watch as Lilia crosses the stage to collect her diploma. Lilia can hardly wait to see her again.

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.