A Matter of Pay and Cultural Pride : Full Status Demanded for Armenian Class

Times Staff Writer

Melissa Sherwood wanted to learn more about the world of her ancestors, so this fall she enrolled in an Armenian-language class at California State University, Northridge.

Lebanese emigrant Peter Tashjian signed up for the course so he could brush up on the Armenian he had learned as a child.

And Mary Burunsuzyan, who spoke an eastern Armenian dialect in her Soviet Armenia homeland, took the course to learn the western Armenian dialect that is more commonly heard in the United States.

Although their reasons for taking the class are different, the three are united on one issue--they want the CSUN foreign languages department to add Armenian to its regular curriculum and pay their professor's salary.

For five years, the students say, the Armenian class has been treated like the university's stepchild. CSUN has never paid the instructor's salary, leaving the Armenian Students Assn. responsible for an honorarium of $800 to $1,200 each semester. The only thing CSUN has provided is a classroom.

"The system is not fair," Burunsuzyan said. "Why should French and Spanish professors be paid by the university and not the Armenian professor?"

"We want to protect our heritage, and we are willing to do anything to keep our class," student Sean Khachatryan said.

This year, for the first time, Armenian was offered for credit on an experimental basis through the foreign languages department and, as a result, was listed in the college catalogue. Thirty-seven students signed up, more than three times the number who enrolled the previous semester. But despite the growing interest, the future of the once-a-week class remains uncertain.

The foreign languages department does not have the $14,000 a year needed to hire a part-time Armenian-language professor, department Chairman Alvin Ford said.

Limited Offerings

The department is limiting its offerings to commonly studied languages such as French, Spanish, German, Russian and Hebrew. In the next few years, Ford said, his department will inaugurate courses in Japanese and Chinese as part of the university's attempt to strengthen ties with Asian universities and businesses.

A Swahili class is offered by the Pan-African Studies Department, and Assyrian is offered through the CSUN extension program.

But, since the university has no plans to add an Armenian-language professorship, the students worry that it will become increasingly difficult to attract academically qualified volunteers to teach the class for a small honorarium. What's more, students say they cannot raise enough money on a regular basis to pay an instructor even a minimal $800 a semester.

"If the university doesn't pay the salary, we are going to lose a good thing," Garegin Kuyumjian said.

"It's unfair to make us pay the teacher's salary," Tashjian added. "We're students; we don't have money."

Ford would like to solve the problem by establishing an endowment that would use private contributions to pay the instructor's salary. That way, the faculty could be enlarged without the burden of another salary. But establishing an endowment is no sure thing.

Some educators say it is more difficult for state-supported schools such as CSUN to attract contributions because donors are more likely to believe that private universities have a greater need.

Without an endowment, Ford said, there is little likelihood that the department will add Armenian-language classes.

"We simply do not have the funds to be all things to all people," he said.

Interest in the language has grown as the number of Armenian students at CSUN has increased. There are about 750 students of Armenian descent among CSUN's 21,000 full-time students, Armenian student leaders say.

Although ethnic pride among the Armenian students has played a large part in the popularity of the class, educators say there are solid academic reasons for offering Armenian at any college.

Used by Researchers

Biblical scholars frequently study Armenian in order to read one of the earliest translations of the Bible, said Dickran Kouymjian, director of the Armenian studies program at California State University, Fresno. Armenian is also used by researchers studying Middle Eastern literature.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead, who considered Armenian an easy language to master, had recommended that it be adopted as a universal second language instead of Esperanto, a language developed in the 1880s.

"People perceive Armenian as some exotic language. It's not," Kouymjian said. "It is an extremely important language, just as important as French, Spanish or German."

Recognizing that it was important, Harvard University in 1959 became the first American college to establish a separate Armenian studies program. Armenian language and cultural courses are also taught at UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University.

The CSUN Armenian class meets every Monday afternoon in a large, drafty lecture room on campus. Before the weekly session starts, most of the students converse in English, laced with the latest San Fernando Valley slang. But all English stops once instructor Hermine Mahseredjian, an energetic, strong-willed woman, walks in. For the next three hours, only Armenian is spoken.

Alphabet Taught First

Mahseredjian, a high school counselor who also has a private family-counseling practice, has taught the class for four of its five years. She begins by teaching her students the Armenian alphabet. Once they have mastered that, they go on to simple words and sentences.

Although some students already know how to speak Armenian, the class is taught as if everyone is a beginner.

"The students who know how to speak may not know how to read or write Armenian, so they still need basic instruction," said Mahseredjian, who was recruited by CSUN's Armenian Students Assn. "It would be easier to have one class of introductory Armenian and another class for more advanced students. But, with only one section, we do the best we can."

By taking the semester-long course, students can complete part of their general education requirements for graduation.

But when Mahseredjian's students explain why they enrolled in the class, they rarely mention graduation requirements or credits. Their reasons are more emotional. They talk about preserving their heritage, acquiring the ability to talk to grandparents and in-laws, gaining insights about their background.

Letters From Aunt

"In the past, when I would get letters from my aunt in Armenia, I would have to give them to my parents so they could read them to me," said Gevork Shirinian, who, before this fall, could speak the language but not read or write it.

"Now that I've taken the class, I can read her letters myself. I think it is important for a person to be able to speak, to read and to write in their native language," he added.

Because the students' feelings about the course are so intense, its precarious status is especially disturbing. Some students view the university's unwillingness to commit itself to paying a professor as an insult to the Armenian culture.

"I'm really upset at the school's position because it makes it seem that Armenian is not one of the important languages," Sherwood said. "They support the other languages like Japanese and Chinese. They should fund Armenian the same way."

Sherwood said she may start a petition drive to demand that the university add Armenian to its curriculum. Other class members said they may stage demonstrations to dramatize the need for CSUN to fund the class.

Seek Private Funding

When classes resume, Mahseredjian will join Ford in seeking private funding for the Armenian-language professor.

But Ford will have to raise much more than the $14,000 he said his department needs to hire a part-time instructor. To make certain there is enough money to sustain endowed positions for several decades, CSUN guidelines require a minimum donation of $1 million for a fully endowed chair, $500,000 for a partially endowed chair and $100,000 for "special faculty support" funds. Which amount would be needed for the Armenian professorship has not been decided.

While Mahseredjian agrees with the idea of an endowment to fund the position, she wants to make sure contributions come from a variety of sources.

"I don't think the entire responsibility should fall on the Armenian community," she said. "This is a language that has many academic applications, so the entire community should be asked to contribute."

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