Recently I had the opportunity to visit with MPA alum, Arsen Stepanyan (MPA 2014) in Yerevan, Armenia. The trip was made possible through the support of Muskie Mentor/Advisor Exchange (MAX) Program, funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and implemented by IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board), Save the Children International’s Armenia Country Office and the Department of Public Administration at Yerevan State University. While Arsen was a student in the MPA program, we immediately hit it off and saw common interests. Arsen came into the program with many years of working in international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). During his time at CCPA, we spent afternoons in my office talking about topics from civil society legislation to NGO advocacy. Since he has graduated, we have keep up the communication and always intended to find ways to continue to work together.
Arsen is the Country Director for Save the Children. Save the Children has been working in Armenia for 20 years, delivering more than $50 million in relief and development programs to the most vulnerable children and their families. Save the Children focuses on health, education and social initiatives to improve basic conditions of the poorest populations in Armenia. It seeks to engage in community-based projects and capacity building of local partners and institutions.
My trip to Armenia was my first time in the country; and it was busy! Arsen planned talks, workshops, meetings, and cultural events in the capital city of Yerevan, where he is based. I visited two universities. At each university I gave a short talk titled “Issues of government and civil society interaction: Role of nonprofit managers.” The first was a Slavonic University. When I walked into the university building, it was during a 20 minute break in between classes and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville was blasting; this definitely made me smile. I spoke to a group of about 35 students packed into a small, but functional room. I liked Arsen’s strategy to this talk—these are language majors with seriously strong English skills and they were considering diplomacy work as careers in Armenia. He wants to snag them into the nonprofit sector. Prior to visiting Slavonic University, Arsen had described to me that he wanted more well-trained, and yes idealistic, nonprofit leaders who could rise up to be strong middle management in an organization like Save the Children. Students had great questions and might even had been convinced that public service in NGOs is a good option—and perhaps even consider coming to Binghamton’s MPA program.
At the second university, Yerevan State University, I met with the Director of its International Office and faculty from its MPA program. There, I gave the talk to about 40 students—both undergraduate and MPA students. Again, I was able to share information about Binghamton’s MPA program. Like Binghamton, Yerevan State University is also internationalizing. I spoke with faculty and students information about CCPA’s international research, highlighting our in-house international programs which include service learning and language immersion in Cusco, Peru; the study of contemporary China in Shenzhen, China and as well as developing programs for faculty and student exchanges in Colombia and Turkey.
Arsen and I also conducted two workshops. At The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we gave a workshop titled: “CSO legislation reform: Implications for international, humanitarian and social service organizations.” This was a great conversation among Armenian and international NGOs as well as UN agencies. In addition, we convened a group of Armenia NGO professionals at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation for a workshop titled “Developing CSO coalitions and networks (federations) for NGO legislation reform.” The workshop spurred a meaningful discussion among colleagues working in the NGO sector in Armenia. At the end of the workshop, a plan for a next meeting was set up to continue the conversation.
In addition to these events, I had the opportunity to meet many new colleagues. I met the Peace Corps Armenia Country Director and the Community and Youth Development Program Officer for coffee with Arsen. At the meeting, Arsen proposed many ideas to promote nonprofit leadership and a culture of volunteerism in Armenia. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer myself (Macadonia 2001; Bolivia 2002-2004), it was great to hear about what Peace Corps Armenia is doing with its Armenian counterparts—developing a culture of volunteerism was included and this was especially of interest to Arsen. In addition, I met Zhanna Harutyunyan (MPA graduate 2012). I had never met Zhanna but my colleagues here at CCPA have often spoken about her and her energy. Now I know why! She is doing amazing work at the United Nations Development Program as a Project Expert. Traveling often to the rural areas of Armenia, she is building capacity in women community leadership and encouraging women to run for local government office. She reminisced about her time at Binghamton, smiling about her fellow MPA students there and reflected on her fond memories of the coursework in the MPA program. This was really nice to hear. Arsen also, in many of our public speaking events, noted how enriched his career is as a result of the the Binghamton MPA program. He highlighted the program’s ability to take theory into practice in almost all of his classes—from the decision making associated with the Philanthropy Incubator classes to analyzing local government budgets in our Budgeting and Financial Management course. He highlighted that Binghamton MPA students are constantly in the field gaining skills and competencies to complement what is done the classroom.
In addition to these wonderful professional exchanges, I of course was exposed to Armenia. When Arsen was off being a nonprofit leader, he paired me up with a smart, helpful undergraduate volunteer for Save the Children. Mane Hovhannisyan, a linguistic major, accompanied me to almost all events, took pictures, translated for me when needed (often!), and even helped me pick out a gift for my sister and a rug for a friend!! She was a wonderful addition to my week. One of the cultural highlights was when I went to see with Mane the Armenian opera, Anoush, at the Armenian National Opera Theater.
I can report that my trip to Armenia was both professionally and personally rewarding. First, I saw our alum, Arsen Stepanyan, in his element. He has become a true nonprofit sector leader in Armenia, engaging his colleagues in sector reflection and pushing the sector to advocate for itself and the people it serves. Seeing our alum so closely ‘in the field’ makes me want to visit all of our alum! From down the street in Binghamton to Colombia and Armenia, I have been able to see what great work they are doing and hope to have the opportunity to visit many more. In addition, as a researcher who often focuses on Latin America; going to Armenia indeed broadened my perspective on issues facing NGOs. NGO leaders in all contexts are working hard to better explain their role in social development. Not only was I able to share experiences from Latin America; but I too was able to learn from the experiences of Arsen and his colleagues. Just like when I return from Latin America after working with NGOs there, having returned Armenia, I am inspired by the work, commitment, and leadership of NGO leaders like Arsen and his colleagues.
Many thanks to Arsen for a wonderful week of collaboration! I look forward to working more with Arsen, with NGOs leaders from Armenia and beyond, and with further MPA alum!
In solidarity, Susan Appe
Department of Public Administration
College of Community and Public Affairs