BY SANAN SHIRINIAN
Since the start of my teaching adventure at Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School in August, 2014, I have pursued a constant and unrelenting standard of excellence, trailing the path set by our principle and leader, Dr. Alina Dorian.
Dr. Dorian’s impressive resume includes a Ph.D. from John Hopkins University, as well as authoring Karabakh’s first National Health Plan in 1996. Yet her past accomplishments are only outmatched by her thirst for even greater success, never motivated by selfish ambitions but in service to a greater good. She accepted the position of Principle in 2011, and since then has transformed the institution into a world of possibilities.
Her tireless energy and passion for her work are difficult to put into words, but I will attempt to paint a picture for you about this magical place that is Pilibos.
When I went to see Dr. Dorian to schedule an interview, her office door was ajar as it usually is, ready to welcome any passerby. The scene in this brief moment could have been out of a movie profiling a successful career mom. She was just hanging up the phone, gesturing me to come inside. Her desk was an organized wealth of folders, post-its and papers, all outlining plans for the school. There were reports for our fundraising walkathon, midterm schedules, leadership retreats, the Armenia trip, website updates, etc. etc., all neatly piled beneath photos of her 3 sons. Behind her stood a shelf, where key words defining the values of our school were framed and displayed as a constant reminder of what we strive for; Excellence, Integrity, Heritage, Community and Unity. I sat down as she flipped through her calendar, with hardly a day void of something scheduled.
Few weeks later I was back in that office, iPhone recorder in hand. As we spoke for nearly 40 minutes about her reflections of the past 5 years since becoming principle, and her vision for the future of our school, it became clear that the common thread weaving together all her thoughts was simply, love.
We began with what she considers her greatest accomplishment over these past five years.
“For me, I think building relationships with my students. Relationships to me signify the world, that whole thing of being valued and valuing. I feel close to all the kids, I feel like I am completely a part of their lives,” said Dorian. “Also building relationships with my teachers. So much of it comes down to the fact that all we want to do is the best we can for everyone here, my students and my teachers. Really helping everybody grow.”
“Pilibos is a beacon of my people. I want Pilibos to produce leaders in everything they do. I don’t only mean political leaders, but people who are in charge of their lives, and doing things that are valued. I’m not sure if I’ve necessarily done that, but definitely working towards that,” added Dorian.
I’m always a sap for the idealist, romantic approach, but I followed up with asking about specific measurable accomplishments.
“It’s important to note that we have gained in student population. We also just won CIF championships. But that doesn’t signify what we are doing. Quantitative indicators are just one component. We’re about the qualitative indicators.
And it’s not just me. One person can’t do anything. Yes, I have a vision, but that vision is shared. It’s about being up here [she points up high] from an eagle’s point of view, then coming down here, and getting to work on the ground. It’s the little and big,” she said.
She also made it a point to reject the often-heard rhetoric about how our school was weak before her arrival. “It’s about growth forever. Everything that’s happened before has built Pilibos” she said.
“Coming back to students as individuals. We fight for every child. I really do in every way. Academically, behaviorally, emotionally, I want to give them every opportunity to be the best they can be. But [she pauses] there have been times where I’ve had to come to realization that unfortunately I have to decide for Pilibos over that child. If I feel like I’ve done everything I could do for that child of mine, and now they are a detriment to Pilibos, that’s a very difficult decision to make.
Public health sometimes has to sacrifice the few for the many. It’s all about communities. I think that’s the hardest thing,” Dorian said of her greatest challenge.
The ability to balance her love for each and every single student, with her love for the school as an essential pillar of the community and nation, is where I saw the finesse and fortitude that make her a great leader. “My fight here, it’s not just about this school, it’s about this school doing bigger things, ” she said.
When I asked what inspires her to walk into work every day with so much positive energy and determination, she wouldn’t narrowly point to a single source of inspiration.
“Well my hero is Gandhi, but that doesn’t count, because I can’t be Gandhi,” she said laughing. “Here at school my teachers and kids inspire me. I can’t think of a better place to be and I don’t think people get it. Because I didn’t get it before I came here. When you’re here and you’re surrounded by love… [She opens her palms towards the door leading outside to the playground.]
“Love from a teenager, that’s hard-core love. There are moments we don’t agree, we aren’t always happy with each other. But it comes down to them knowing we only want what best for them. I draw total inspirationfrom my own children, they put up with a lot because they get the wrath of both mom and principle. Honestly they push me,” explained Dorian.
“Family, community, I’m proud to be Armenian; I draw so much strength from Karabakh. Look at what we do in all of these places!” she said.
I had to follow up teasingly about which she cares for more, Pilibos or Karabakh?
“Sometimes I tell people as joke, Pilibos is my new Karabakh. But really THIS IS the future of Karabakh for me in so many ways. The greatest good I can do for Karabakh is to send all these kids there.” She started to get teary-eyed. “I have a student who their whole [motivation] last year was to spend 3 week in Karabakh [after his class trip]. To see him go and have so much more depth than I could have ever had…”
She was talking about her son, but I knew that wasn’t the point whatsoever.
“This generation is smarter, loves more deeply, cares more deeply. I walk outside and I know they are going to make sure we move forward as a people. I have no doubt about these 600, they will make a difference,” she said. “Karabakh stands as the best example of who are as people, with an undying passion and commitment. I always tell my students you have to love this school unconditionally, not for a decision that was made today. There’s going to be good days and bad days, that’ life!”
We then went on to talk about what she envisioned for the school in years to come. Here is where we got to the kitty gritty practical needs of a school working on a limited budget in Los Angeles.
“What we need is an endowment!” she said forcefully. “We can’t live day-to-day, year-to-year. We really have to think about he long term. Physically Pilibos needs more space. We have already outgrown what we have. Not just space for bodies, but space to have a music program, art program, dance program. We need better facilities, better stats, and more students. We just have to one-up constantly. We’re happy, but you can’t stop.”
It’s no secret that she has tons of ideas to always one-up herself, and once those ideas are given a folder – like the pile of folders on her desk – it means it’s going to happen.
“We’re not a school, we are the producers of the future, and this is where we have to invest as a people,” she said, making me smile in agreement.
But what is our survival strategy as an ARMENIAN school, functioning in this AMERICAN society? How do we cultivate the Armenian identity here? I asked.
“In America I cannot see any other public or private school with kids remaining more Armenian than these kids here. [They have the heart, with language, the spirit] Their culture is important to them. Hands down. But don’t compare us to Beirut or Syria; it’s not the same,” said Dorian.
She acknowledged the unique challenges of preserving our language.
“America has a different power. It just does. The world is this i-phone, and its not in Armenian. You want this school to fight against this entire [trend], it’s an impossibility. Influence does not just come from home and school. Their entire environment, the entire world is in English. Does that mean we failed? Absolutely not, [you are just seeing it through the wrong lens.] [Language] is a wrong indicator of measuring their Armenian identities. Choose appropriate indicators if you’re really measuring worth.”
She continued by noting how most of these students can and do communicate comfortably in Armenian: “People chose to send their kids here for one of two reasons; to stay Armenian, or for academics. We have the Armenian part. It is also important to emphasize we are not deficient in any way when it comes to academics. If people value education based on numbers and stats, we will continue to show that. Those numbers will continue to increase. No Armenian can tell met that Providence is a better school, because our stats are the same. It’s important to see the TOTALITY of what we’re offering. Our kids are not only worth it, they will give back a million-fold. They’re going to change everyone’s future. So we need to invest!”
As our interview was winding down, she offered some final thoughts, emphasizing the urgent need to prioritize Armenian educational institutions.
“615 kids, 85 teachers. Lives grow here. The power of this is underestimated. We are clawing penny by penny to [keep these kids Armenian. Our nation has to do everything it takes to keep them Armenian],” Dorian said.
This year, as we mark the 125th anniversary of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation we will celebrate our achievements, and be critical of our shortcomings. The founding generation of the ARF understood the value and importance of schools and education for the development and security of a nation.
Today, we are lucky to have a principle who views her responsibly to one of our school’s not just as a job, but also as a life’ purpose. Dr. Dorian so lovingly leads a school that will produce hundreds of future world leaders, and fosters a community so far from its homeland. Now as an organization we must rediscover that importance our founders gave to education, and pursue a collective love for our schools that will make them even greater for tomorrow.