BY JACKIE ABRAMIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
Crossing over the Kievyan Bridge in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, you take a right turn onto Halabyan Street where once the expansive Tumanyan Park spread out on the right side of the road—and now is a manicured, professionally landscaped park sporting modern, colorful playgrounds, sports fields and courts and benches that cater to the surrounding populace. And beyond the park, set on a hill, sits a massive structure. Engraved across the front of the building in both Armenian and English letters it reads: Tumo Center for Creative Technologies.
I was arriving here to give a three-week long workshop on PR, Marketing and Social Media and news writing—with a vision to create the foundation for Tumo News, a multi-media, student-designed, written, edited, published and promoted publication. I hoped to train a group of ambassadors who via social media, the Internet, writing and multi-media talents could reach their peers in Armenia and beyond to spread the word about the offerings and events at the oasis upon the hill. But I had no idea if my vision would be realized or fall flat.
Having been a witness and part of Armenia’s evolving history and political systems since the mid-1980s as cross-cultural organizer (for Cambridge and Yerevan sister city program), my multiple visits to Armenia have given me front seat views of the epochs of Communism, Glasnost and Perestroika, democratic developments, the Karabakh war, the tragic earthquake, and the rise to independence. I’ve experienced the perfect mix of simultaneous political and economic chaos and progress—especially after having lived in Armenia in 1992 at the height of the Karabakh war and the Azeri blockade, remembering too well the dark period when frost bitten extremities were the norm, food was a luxury to hunger for, and hope fulfilled our appetites for life.
Now I was to spend three weeks with a group of young men and women born into an independent Republic of Armenia with no experience or memory of those cold days of 1992.
Tumo, where teenagers study video game design, animation, web development and filmmaking, is unlike anything else in Armenia today. The Tumo staff of 120 is a core group of young, IT savvy professionals—bright, enthusiastic, multi-lingual and well versed in the latest technologies. Armed with a swipe card that allows you access to elevators, doors, offices, and basically in and out of the Center, I was escorted for a complete tour of the Center by Tania Sahakian (workshop coordinator) and assigned a workshop class on the first floor. My two workshop assistants (and much needed translators when lost for Armenian translations) Nare Ter-Gabrielyan and Nayiry Ghazarian are part of a group of 25 full and part-time coaches working with and assisting students.
As I watched from the tall windows onto the sprawling, geometrically designed Tumo Park and the front entrance of the Center, the first session (3:30-5:30pm) students began to arrive: spilling out of taxi vans, private cars, public transport and streaming toward the Center’s front entrance. Then, at exactly 3:30, hundreds of ID cards swiped through the slots as a sea of children, like flood gates lifted, rushed to take possession of Tumobiles, the individualized, mobile computer stations, connected to the data and network via modern spiraling wires that reach high to the ceilings. New students are introduced to Tumo World a special learning interface that prepares them for hands-on experience. By earning points on their activities, the students can then move up to other activities and workshops, as well as gain free-play and access to unstructured playrooms and equipment. Tumobiles, exclusively designed for Tumo by the well-known architect Bernard Khoury, whose designs also adorn the modern interior architecture, are unique.
Now on its third year of operations, Tumo is a phenomenon of an unyielding reality amidst much uncertainty that has plagued this ancient land. Tumo seals the drainage of serious brain-drain in today’s Armenia by offering high-quality education, professional training and apprenticeship opportunities to help reverse the catastrophic levels of emigration. Tumo’s offerings empower Armenia’s youth with the best technology and multi-media training from local and world-renowned experts for an unprecedented apprenticeship to engage with, absorb and learn. Where else would Armenia’s youth have an opportunity to personally interview a Google executive? Learn from animation master, Pixar’s Katherine Sarafian, or bring to life one-act plays as the culmination of a workshop led by stage professional Ani Nina Oganyan? And choose from countless other workshops (up to 20 per month offered to over 5,000 students)?
Tumo is much more than an “after-school experience.” It’s an opportunity for Armenia’s new generation to seize knowledge from field experts with hands-on, active involvement and to pave their own path to success. Spread over 65,000 square foot on the first two floors of the modern building, Tumo offers nearly 500 computers, 100 iPads, numerous multi-media equipped labs for workshop classes and other equipment available to the students and the staff—along with an affordably priced, modern cafeteria offering freshly baked goods and refreshments, all for a one-time charge of 10,000 Drams ($25), returned to the families when the student completes or exits the program. Tumo is an equalizer of opportunities for success for Armenia’s “haves and the have nots.” With a branch site already operational in Dilijan through funding from the Central Bank, Tumo is set to open a similar center in Stepanakert with the support of AGBU, and hopes to open smaller scale centers in cities like Goris and Gyumri.
The brainchild of Sam and Sylva Simonian, Tumo is funded by the Simonian Educational Foundation, which also funds the geometrically designed and landscaped adjoining plaza and 40 acre Tumanyan Park. While the Simonians are actively involved in the infrastructure of the center, Marie Lou Papazian directs the day-to-day activities of the center while her husband, Pegor Papazian, a board member, is actively involved in planning and coordinating the center’s activities. Tumo’s impressive board of advisors includes such top professionals as Twitter’s VP of Engineering Raffi Krikorian, Pixar’s award-winning animator Katherine Sarafian, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, academy award winning digital effects pro Roger Kupelian, and artist and social commentator Vahe Berberian.
As some 20 students filed into Tumo News workshop, I met their eager eyes and heard for the first time their names that I was to memorize for the coming weeks. I was putting names and faces together as the group had already created a Tumo News Facebook page prior to my arrival. There was an obvious eagerness to learn and put into action all that had been talked about to this point. So during our first session on social media I asked each student to create their own Twitter site and as I prepared to provide step-by-step instructions, a flood of new followers began following me on my Twitter. “What’s next,” they wanted to know. We then selected editors, reporters, design and layout and social media teams, videographers and photographers. Then the students offered a list of assignments: from select workshops, presentations, lectures and individuals to interview at Tumo. By the end of the week, the design team had already designed variations of the Tumo News logo which they presented to the whole team. The critique session and commentaries on the logo was nothing short of a group of professionals offering opinions. By the end of the first week I was astonished at the extent of achievement and work that had already taken place in five days.
As I reviewed interview techniques with the Tumo News Team, showed sample TV interviews, discussed article parts, writing styles and differences between PR, Marketing and Advertising, the levels of questions, discussions and grasp of new information was nothing short of that of a mature audience. With assistance from Tumo’s communications department, the Tumo News team set up social media sites, while the design team worked with Hayk Galstyan of the Tumo software development group to realize their logo and publication layout and design. And so by the third week the Tumo News team saw their work come to life—and thus set up the foundation for the future of a multi-media student eNewsletter and print publication where teens communicate with teens about Tumo events and offerings from their point of view.
As I left the Tumo News team, with whom I hope to be working long-distance in the coming months, I have no doubt that in the near future I will once again meet them either in person or virtually. But this time not as Tumo News workshop participants, but as Armenia’s thought leaders, professionals and trail blazers in their respective chosen fields. And while many may leave the borders to seek advanced training, they attest they endeavor to return to offer and pay back to their ancestral land which defines the context of their own identity. As army-bound Davit Balayan so proudly pronounced during an afternoon chat at the student cafeteria at Tumo:
“What’s been given and bestowed upon me by my forefathers—my cultural identity and traditions—is now my responsibility to preserve. If I leave Armenia for higher training, I will return to help elevate the professional levels of my people and my country. This is where I will always be.”
When in 1992 I boarded the plane to return to my comfortable home in the US, leaving behind an Armenia in darkness with half stump trees standing as silhouettes of ghosts in the stark streets of Yerevan, I wasn’t sure there would be an Armenia to return to.
This December 2013, leaving Armenia after having had the honor of spending three weeks with Tumo professionals and workshop participants, I have tears of elation knowing that the future of Armenia will be in the hands of the young professionals whose intellectual empowerment was made possible by that phenomenon upon the hill on 16 Halabyan Street where one student at a time a team of visionaries are building the future of an Armenia we will all be proud to be part of and live in.
In the words of singer/songwriter Arthur Meschian’s lyrics: “I believe that still the roots of our tree haven’t dried, and will give new shoots….and no matter how we lose ourselves in this world…. the melody of a familiar note, will always lead us back home.”