BERKELEY, Calif. (Cal Alumni Association)—When Christina Moughamian ’73 graduated from UC Berkeley, the university had many courses covering European and Asian nations’ histories and cultures—but none that addressed the culture and traditions of Armenia.
Fortunately, Cal did have a small Armenian Student Association, which acted primarily as a social group for meeting other Armenians on campus.
If Moughamian was attending UC Berkeley today, not only would she find an active Armenian Student Association, but she’d also find classes that focus on Armenian history, politics, language, literature, and culture. She could join the Armenian Student Association, which is still going strong. And when she graduated, she would have the opportunity to join the thriving UC Berkeley Armenian Alumni Chapter.
The growth in academic standing and curriculum opportunities is largely the work of one individual, Professor Stephan Astourian, who retired from his role as Director of the Armenian Studies Program and Associate Adjunct Professor of History in July 2022. Born to Armenian parents in the south of France, Astourian received his Ph.D. in modern Armenian studies from UCLA. (The largest Armenian population in the United States is based in Southern California.)
Armenian studies came relatively late to American universities. At the universities that did offer courses with Armenian content, the language and culture courses might be housed in Slavic departments, and a history class in the ancient history department, rather than within an established Armenian studies department.
Astourian came to UC Berkeley in 1998 for a one-year William Saroyan visiting professorship with the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. His class was so popular that he was invited back the following year. But because his family was in Los Angeles, he initially turned the offer down. Astourian told George W. Breslauer, then Chair of the Center, that an official Armenian studies program and a full-time position must be created in order for him to remain at UC Berkeley. They mutually agreed upon a dual role for Astourian: 50% adjunct professor, 50% Executive Director of the Armenian Studies Program.
Astourian’s classes covered topics like diasporas, the Caucasus countries in the modern era, comparative genocide, and ethnic conflicts. These courses were particularly attractive to Armenian students who were interested in learning more about their own history and heritage.
“Professor Astourian has made one of the greatest impacts in my life. He forced me to question everything I’ve been taught,” said Talar Kakilian ’14 in a surprise tribute video with many student testimonials.
In order to meet the demand for more classes, Astourian became a proficient fundraiser, forging connections with Armenian Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and, crucially, UC Berkeley Armenian alumni. With his support and guidance, the CAA Armenian Alumni Chapter raised approximately $3.8 million, which established a substantial endowment and allowed Astourian to bring aboard a colleague, Myrna Douzjian, in 2016. Douzjian teaches Armenian language, literature, and culture courses, including classes on Armenian and European drama and representations of the Armenian genocide in film. In addition, these funds gave the fledgling department the ability to offer scholarships, organize conferences and talks, and cover the ongoing expenses resulting from merit increases and promotions.
The partnership between the department and Alumni Chapter has always been strong. The chapter has an advisory committee that works closely with the program. The chapter is engaged and always finding innovative ways to strengthen the program.
Today, the Armenian Alumni Chapter arranges professional networking events, social events such as picnics, get-togethers with students, and fundraising events. On May 1, the student association and Alumni Chapter organized a retirement party to celebrate Astourian’s distinguished career.
Despite the retirement of Astourian, the program is in good hands—largely in part to the work of the Alumni Chapter.
“The Armenian Alumni Chapter takes great pride in our history and culture,” says Moughamian. “We also are proud to be graduates of Cal so having a chapter is a way to combine both. The early Armenian Alumni members were the visionaries who decided to introduce the concept of Armenian studies to the university. We are very proud of how the program has developed.”