University of California Partners with American University of Armenia

The American University of Armenia hopes its new academic center will further strengthen its ties to the University of California, whose academic leaders helped launch the graduate school after a 1988 earthquake.

The American University of Armenia doubled its enrollment capacity with the November dedication of a new academic building. Now supporters are hoping to strengthen connections with UC faculty and students. Those connections run deep. Without UC’s two decades of assistance, the university might not exist.

"At the founding of the AUA, the affiliation with UC gave the assurance for a few supporting organizations and individuals that our university was being provided with advice and oversight from a major university system in the U.S.," said Haroutune Armenian, president of the American University in Armenia.

His university still depends on UC expertise to develop academic and administrative procedures, he said.

That working relationship began in the aftermath of Armenia’s devastating 1988 earthquake. Striking on a frigid Dec. 7, the quake wrought massive destruction as high-rise buildings, schools, hospitals and factories crumbled in heaps, killing 25,000 people and displacing more than 500,000. UC Berkeley engineering professor Armen Der Kiureghian traveled to Armenia as a member of a U.S. recovery team.

Still a Soviet Republic, Armenia welcomed international humanitarian aid and the expertise of engineers like Der Kiureghian as the tiny country struggled to recover.

"One idea that came up was setting up an American system of higher education," said Der Kiureghian. "I wrote a proposal. At the time there was a thaw in Soviet relations, and people’s interest in Armenia was heightened."

Mihran Agbabian, a UC Berkeley engineering alumnus and University of Southern California professor, and Stepan Karamardian, formerly dean of the Graduate School of Management at UC Riverside, joined Der Kiureghian in approaching the Armenian government about founding an American-style graduate-level university. The Armenian General Benevolent Union, an international fraternal organization, agreed to fund it. In 1990, then-UC Provost William Frazer led a fact-finding mission of UC academics and administrators to Armenia. The following year UC Regents approved an affiliation with the American University of Armenia in the capital city of Yerevan.

The university opened its doors on Sept. 21, 1991, the same day Armenia declared its independence. Agbabian became its first president and Der Kiureghian the first dean of the College of Engineering, fulfilling those duties via fax, e-mail and three visits per year. UC administrators and faculty have continued to serve on the advisory board, and Armenian, the university’s president, is a professor in residence at UCLA’s School of Public Health.

The university has 275 students enrolled in master’s programs in engineering, English, public health, law, political science and international affairs and business and management. In addition, the university offers extension courses. All classes are taught in English. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredits the university, which now has about 1,500 alumni.

"The graduates are really agents of change," said Der Kiureghian." They are intermediaries between the country and global companies. The university has been a real model for the region."

Although the university is not part of the UC Education Abroad Program, students can attend the university on their own. In summer 2009, the university is offering a special four-week summer session with courses in human rights, global security, health care and other topics. The Armenian General Benevolent Union is offering scholarships for students of Armenian descent, an opportunity Der Kiureghian is hoping UC students will take advantage of.

Der Kiureghian, an ethnic Armenian from Iran, said visiting the country provided a valuable experience to learn about his culture and heritage.

There are also opportunities for visiting research scholars and faculty. For more information contact, Bruce Janigian, vice president development and government relations, at bruce@janigian.com.

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