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Lida Asilyan
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Lida Asilyan (BAEC ’24) To Pursue Graduate Studies at Harvard

7 min read

YEREVAN, Armenia — Hailing from Ijevan, American University of Armenia (AUA) senior Lida Asilyan (BAEC ’24) has ambitious career aspirations, including dreams of serving as future Republic of Armenia Minister of Education. As the next step in chasing this goal, she will be pursuing graduate studies in the Education Policy and Analysis program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) in Fall 2024. It was a tough decision, considering the additional enticing offers of admission she received from Teachers College, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Asilyan credits her transformative experience as an AUA student for propelling her to this next stage in her educational and professional journey. We asked her to share about her road to AUA, the lessons her University education taught her, and more. 

What motivated you to apply for AUA?

Back in high school in Ijevan, I never imagined I would make it to AUA, since I wasn’t strong enough in math to take the SAT, and I didn’t have the financial resources, either. It seemed a faraway dream until after my exchange year in the U.S. in 11th grade, when I studied in Iowa through the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I not only became acquainted with the American education system, but also learned about different careers, as the journalism and writing courses I took at my U.S. high school made me fall in love with these disciplines.

Upon my return to Armenia, I knew I wanted to dive deeper into journalism and use it as a tool to speak up about issues facing Armenia and, especially, border communities like those in Tavush. That’s when I resolved to apply to AUA not only for its English and Communications program, which aligned with my academic interests and career aspirations, but also its welcoming environment, wide range of opportunities, and faculty. I was additionally encouraged by the fact that Maria Titizian, editor-in-chief of EVN Report, which I had just discovered, taught at AUA. As I researched AUA’s rich offerings, such as the Writing Center, Career Counseling, plentiful clubs and extracurricular activities, and variety of courses, my desire to study at the University grew exponentially. 

What is your most memorable memory so far from AUA?

One of my most memorable experiences at AUA was the Oral History course’s “Storying Lives, Narrating Histories” exhibition at the Akian Art Gallery, for which I worked on a project about my grandmother, Lida. Her life story spanned her childhood during World War II, life in the USSR, the first Nagorno-Karabakh War, and more. This project wasn’t just an academic assignment; it was a personal journey that showed me how strong and resilient women like my grandmother can be.

The process of preparing for the exhibition with my classmate Sona Gevorgyan (BAEC ’23) was unforgettable. We spent many late nights putting together our presentation and creating posters that reflected the challenges and struggles women have faced over the years. Beyond relaying historical facts, our project was about connecting these stories to broader themes of identity and resilience. The whole experience, especially sharing our work at the exhibition, really stuck with me and continues to inspire me.

What did you study at AUA, and why did you choose that program?

I studied in the English and Communications (EC) program at AUA because it offered a wide range of options for exploring my academic interests. I was drawn to journalism but also harbored a passion for teaching English. With exciting courses like filmmaking, translation, and media studies, the EC program is ideal for anyone who wants to be creative but isn’t sure where to begin. It’s a program for students who enjoy being challenged, flexing their creative muscles, and discovering new ways to express their ideas. 

Can you please reflect on your experience at AUA?

My experience at AUA was truly transformative. Although my studies overlapped with four profoundly challenging years for Armenia, AUA taught me to not only survive, but also be resilient and believe in myself. Balancing full-time work with my studies was incredibly taxing, but being part of the AUA community always kept me focused on my goals. Every time I left campus, I felt inspired for countless reasons. It is a chapter of my life that shaped me both academically and personally. 

What lessons have you learned at AUA that you will carry with you moving forward?

There are a few key insights I will carry with me moving forward:

  • Art of Noticing: During the Expository Writing, Persuasive Writing, and Creative Writing courses with Senior Lecturer Christian Garbis, I learned the importance of paying attention to the most minor and nondescript things in life. Each detail is a story we can tell, and EC teaches us to be storytellers and illuminate what’s neglected. 
  • The Art of Listening Heavy Listening: We all talk about the importance of active listening, but what about heavy listening, especially in conversations that carry weight and meaning? This was not about hearing, but about truly listening with empathy, openness, and a willingness to understand. In Dr. Hourig Attarian’s Oral History course, I learned that listening can bridge gaps, connect us to our identities, and open doors to untold stories. I learned to listen to the heaviest stories of war, displacement, trauma, healing, and, most importantly, my own stories heavily listening to myself. 
  • The Art of Doing Your Job With Responsibility: From my AUA professors, I learned that teaching — or any professional role, for that matter — is fundamentally about caring. Acting with responsibility in our roles means believing in the impact we can make: one student, one class, one community at a time. Dr. Rafik Santrosyan once said, “It takes one person to prove that we are not a loser as a country, and who says you can’t be that one person?” Well, that’s why I chose education as my future profession, and why I regard it as the most powerful tool I can harness to make a sustainable impact. I wholeheartedly believe that helping one person grow through education will get the chain going. I am going to Harvard with the tool kit, the thoughts, lessons, ideas and all the invaluable moments the entire AUA community has given me.

How do you think AUA contributed to your admission to these graduate schools?

AUA contributed to my graduate school admissions through its academic programs and the impact of its faculty. The variety of courses I took, such as Human Rights, Genocide Studies, Sociology, and those within the EC department like Journalism, Oral History, Translation, and Creative Writing, to name a few, were crucial to my personal and academic development. I selected each course carefully to align with my career aspirations, and they, in turn, enriched my academic experience and equipped me with the skills necessary for both my career and graduate school applications.

Maintaining high academic standards is one component, but the personal growth I experienced through these courses definitely set me apart in the admissions process. The recommendations from professors who could attest to both my academic and personal growth were especially valuable.

The EC professors deserve a special mention for their support and inspiration. The intelligence, mentorship, and role modeling of faculty members like Dr. Attarian, Dr. Santrosyan, Senior Lecturer Garbis, and Lecturer Titizian, among others, have taught me invaluable lessons that extend beyond the classroom. The admissions process depends heavily on good writing that convinces the admissions office of your worth. I learned how to write effectively with the invaluable advice and support of my freshman seminar instructors, Professor Brown and Lecturer Daghlian. The writing courses I later took with Senior Lecturer Garbis and Lecturer Titizian not only improved my writing skills, but also helped me convey my story effectively. These classes were crucial in helping me express my experiences and goals clearly. 

Drs. Santrosyan and Attarian were particularly influential in my decision to focus on education studies. Their commitment to teaching and impact on students motivated me to aim for improving educational systems to nurture more educators like them. While exploring options for my master’s degree, I reached out to College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Dr. Hagop Yacoubian for advice. He was incredibly welcoming and insightful, helping me understand the extensive and fulfilling journey that a career in education entails. This conversation likewise influenced my career aspirations.

In addition to my coursework, AUA offered me opportunities to apply my learning in real-world contexts, such as AGBU’s Storytelling in Journalism program in Goris, which I discovered through AUA. This experience deepened my commitment to pursuing education studies: as I practiced my interviewing and writing skills, I spoke with many individuals and saw firsthand the often overlooked impact of war on education. This reinforced my determination to address these challenges through my future work in education policy. 

Finally, I owe a huge thanks to the AUA Office of the Registrar. Without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to manage all the documentation needed for my applications. I reached out to them countless times to request my transcripts be sent to various institutions, and they were always incredibly helpful and responsive. Their support was crucial in ensuring that all my paperwork was in order for my applications.

Why did you choose Harvard GSE? What do you plan to study there? 

I chose Harvard GSE because of its strong focus on education policy, particularly in regions facing wars and adversity. My time at AUA taught me how vital creativity, critical thinking, and an open mindset are to education, and I want to ensure that educational institutions across Armenia can foster these qualities.

At Harvard, I’m excited to engage with education policy analysis, comparative education, education in emergencies, refugee education, education law, and other such topics that will broaden my understanding and capabilities in this field. I’m particularly interested in how these strategies can be adapted to our unique context in Armenia, to cultivate resilient and creative minds throughout our educational system. With my degree from Harvard, I plan to work toward integrating the creative and critical thinking approaches I valued at AUA into schools and universities across Armenia.  

What are your broader professional goals? How do you plan to stay in touch with and contribute to your alma mater?

After completing my master’s studies at Harvard, I plan to either pursue a Ph.D. to deepen my analytical skills in educational policy through comparative studies or use the Optional Practical Training program, which allows graduates to work for up to three years post-graduation. This will be a great opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge in practical settings, helping me gain enough experience and new perspectives before I return to Armenia. 

Upon my return, my goal is to collaborate with the Ministry of Education, initially as a consultant and eventually aspiring to serve as the Minister of Education. My primary goal is to ensure equitable access to quality education for all students across the country, regardless of their geographical location. Teaching also forms a major part of my career aspirations. I view teaching as a mission, one of the most fulfilling and impactful ways to influence future generations. I aspire to teach at AUA, following in the footsteps of influential mentors like Dr. Attarian and Dr. Santrosyan, who have shaped my approach to education.

I hope I can also establish collaborations with Harvard GSE and AUA, either online or in person. Considering the Human Rights and Genocide Studies minor AUA offers, along with its education courses, I see room for collaboration. For my master’s thesis, I want to research the impact of compulsory military service on education and how war impacts education. Specifically, I plan to explore what policies and curricula should be developed to support students in conflict-affected regions, ensuring their educational progress is sustained despite the challenges. I see myself conducting this research in close collaboration with Dr. Attarian, drawing on her expertise in the field of education. 

Founded in 1991, the American University of Armenia (AUA) is a private, independent university located in Yerevan, Armenia, affiliated with the University of California, and accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission in the United States. AUA provides local and international students with Western-style education through top-quality undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs, promotes research and innovation, encourages civic engagement and community service, and fosters democratic values.