Dr. Mary A. Papazian was inaugurated as 11th President of the Southern Connecticut University on September 28, 2012. Last week, Dr. Papazian and her husband, Dr. Dennis Papazian, the National Grand Commander of Knights of Vartan and founding Director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, visited Yerevan to receive honorary doctorate from Armenian State Pedagogical University. In an interview with PanARMENIAN.Net, Dr. Papazian outlined her vision for the future of the University as well as a possible cooperation with Armenian higher education institutions.
What are your main goals as the President of Southern Connecticut University?
Well, we are trying to continue to grow and become a premium university in our state as well as develop additional relationships with our colleagues abroad. We have programs in business, health science, education and arts. We are very excited with what we have done already and are looking to do even more.
In your inauguration speech you said that you wish for Southern to reach out even more and attract out-of-state and international students. Does the University implement exchange programs with other higher education institutions, including those in Armenia?
We are relatively new to this. I have just signed an exchange program with Ho Chi Minh City university in Vietnam. Being a strong education institution with much expertise, we have another partnership developing in Spain and this time it will be our first relationship in Armenia. The fact is that our University and Yerevan State Pedagogical University are very similar in many ways, so it looks like a natural connection. There is also Yerevan State University and American University of Armenia, which I visited numerous times. But our initial exchange we hope will be with Pedagogical University.
You attended an Armenian school where your mother taught English and American history. It was the first Armenian day school to open in California. Did your Armenian heritage influence your future life in any way?
I think so. It was a new experience for me and I was there from 12 to 18. My Armenian roots are deep and are a big part of who I am. My parents were involved in the Armenian Council for the Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, which initiated the construction of the Genocide Memorial in Montebello. Also, my husband was one of the founders of the Armenian Assembly of America. I think we learned to live in two worlds: our Armenian world and the broader world of the United States. We learned how to negotiate between one and the other, now we are trying to bring them together, an experience that was impossible in the 1960s, when the U.S. was not interested in ethnicities.
You are a scholar of English literature, but Armenian history and culture are also among your interests. The Armenian community in the United States, as you said, “was born out of the genocide”. Are there any plans for an optional Armenian Genocide course for your students?
Actually, we offer it already. The chair of the Philosophy Department of our University, Dr. Armen Marsoobian offers the course on the Armenian Genocide and Holocaust. He took his students to the Armenian Library and Museum of America located in Boston and also to New York-based Jewish Heritage Museum. So, we are looking to build a program and perhaps begin an Armenian center like the one created by my husband in the University of Michigan.
The University’s Ethnic Heritage Center represents 5 Connecticut-based ethnic historical societies: African, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Ukrainian. Will it have an Armenian sector in the future as well?
I certainly hope so. There is a strong Armenian presence in Connecticut, where several churches were built after Armenians came to the area a hundred years ago. As part of my inauguration, we organized an Armenian art exhibit, where U.S.-based Armenian artists as well as a number of artists from Armenia displayed their works. Although we haven’t had a strong Armenian presence at the campus, we now anticipate developing a program to add an Armenian flavor to our ethnic heritage center.
You are in Yerevan to receive an honorary doctorate from Armenian State Pedagogical University. According to your views, what are the main advantages and shortcomings of the education system in Armenia?
Well, I can’t speak in great detail. What I can say is that the Pedagogical University and Yerevan State University were at the core of the building of Armenia and remain an important source of educational leadership in the country at all levels. It’s a sign that Armenia understood that education is at the heart of its future and success. When we talk about education we imply the need to develop workforce and the need to strengthen the economy but in the United States we also talk about the need for young people to be engaged in the civic and political life of the country. I believe this to be an important direction for Armenia as well. I do think that Armenian universities are on the right path but there are certainly some challenges ahead.
When was your last visit to Yerevan and has the city changed since then? If yes, how?
Every time I come here, the city looks a little different. My first visit to Yerevan was in 1974 and I have many memories as a child coming to Armenia in the soviet times. The next visit was in 1992, after the earthquake and during the Karabakh war, when there was no heat, no electricity, no water. What I saw at that time is that people were determined to survive but they still showed commitment to build something. Every time since, I saw more and more development and growth but there is still much to do, especially to build an economy that can last and keep people here.
Have you ever been to Nagorno Karabakh?
No, I haven’t, unlike my husband and my parents. So, the next time I come to Armenia, I will make a trip to Karabakh as well.
Work takes most of your time, of course. But can a University President find some time for hobbies?
Work in many ways is our hobby. I don’t think of my work as work and I love doing it. Actually, my husband has had a long career in administration and he loves talking about it very much. So, this is our fun. I know it sounds strange but this is really our fun. We have two daughters, one is 19 and the other is 14, so when we are not thinking about our work we are thinking about them.
Do your daughters plan to take up a teaching career?
I don’t think so. Our eldest daughter is a second year student at the Tufts University in Boston and she is focused on genetics. The youngest one is very talented in many things but I suspect she will end up with something involved in negotiations.
What would you wish for all students, no matter their background, location and nationality?
My hope is that all students get a deep and broad education, one that allows them to understand who they are and to respect people from many different societies. I hope that they will understand that education is not only about them but is also about giving it back to the community. Our challenge is to enable them to be independent, creative thinkers. If our students can do that, we will be in good hands in the future.