I first heard about Vartan Gregorian a couple of years ago when I attended a ceremony in NYC organized by the Armenian community. Vartan was an honorary guest at the event, along with Ruben Vardanyan and Nubar Afeyan.
This was the only opportunity I had to meet Vartan in person and say hi, but I didn't take it. I didn't know who he was or the extent of his legacy. I might have known that he was a figure in the education field, but that was it.
Since the day I read his autobiography, "The Road to Home: My Life and Times", I keep kicking myself for not seizing the chance to meet and talk to him. To make myself feel better and possibly rid myself of the guilt, I decided to write a post about him and what I learned from his book and life story.
A Life-Changing Book
As someone who loves reading biographies and memoirs, I knew I would enjoy "The Road to Home." In it, I discovered the man who immigrated to the United States from Iran and became so well-known and respected by many, including the US president who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008—the highest civilian medal in the United States.
Little did I know how much his book would impact my view on many social and political issues, including immigration, fitting into a new society, education, and humanitarian causes. However, what struck me most was discovering Vartan Gregorian from so many angles I could have never imagined. After finishing the book, I felt incredibly emotional. Every single page I read touched my heart in the deepest way possible. His words and ideas helped me discover a man who changed the world for the better and remained so humble that not many people, especially those residing in Armenia, ever heard of him.
As the book had an immense impact on me, I decided to write about him. It's nearly impossible to cover all of his accomplishments in a short post, but here's my humble attempt to summarize his extraordinary life and what I learned from him.
Early Childhood: A Love for Literature and History
Vartan was born in Tabriz, Iran, in 1934. He lived his early childhood in the Armenian community based in Tabriz. From a young age, he loved literature and history, thanks to his excellent elementary school teachers. When he was a child, his mother passed away. His father, a busy man working in a local oil company, relied on Vartan's maternal grandmother, Voski Mirzaian, to look after him. Vartan inherited many values and learnings from his wise grandmother, which he held throughout his entire life.
Collège Arménien in Beirut: The Making of an Intellectual
Vartan moved to Beirut, Lebanon, to study at Collège Arménien after completing his initial education in Tabriz. Beirut, in the 1950s, was the cultural and educational center of the region. Collège Arménien was established in May 1828 by Levon Shant, a writer, and Nikol Aghbalian, a well-known literary critic. Both figures were part of the first government of the independent Armenian republic. The main goal of the college was to educate future generations of intellectuals who could help preserve the Armenian language, culture, and history and work for its future development. Students from all over the diaspora attended the well-known school.
The director of the school, Simon Vratzian, was the first prime minister of the first Republic of Armenia (1918-1920). After leaving his post as prime minister, many people thought Vratzian moved to Beirut to retire. However, he spent most of his time writing, teaching, and traveling to North and South America to secure funds for the school. It turns out Vartan's school years coincided with Vratzian's most productive years (1952-1962). Vratzian, a great thinker, eminent public figure, and writer who loved to read, took Vartan under his wing as his unofficial secretary and assistant. He became his new pair of eyes, reading his personal and confidential mails. His mentorship and guidance shaped Vartan's thinking on various critical issues concerning Armenia, society, and education.
Vartan studied at Collège Arménien from 1952 until 1955, graduating with a degree in advanced studies in Armenology.
Life in the United States: A Lasting Impact on Education and Society
Vartan Gregorian's journey in the United States began as a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Humanities program at Stanford University. As a research and teaching assistant to Professor Vucinich, he eventually earned his Ph.D. in 1964.
His work in the United States began at the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught history and the humanities for over a decade. During this time, he also published several books, including "The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946."
In 1972, Gregorian became the director of the Near Eastern Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1974, he became the provost of the university. As provost, he was instrumental in improving the university's curriculum, increasing diversity among students and faculty, and launching various fundraising campaigns.
In 1981, Gregorian became the president of Brown University, where he continued his commitment to diversity and improving academic programs. During his tenure, he oversaw the establishment of a center for public policy, the expansion of the university's libraries, and the creation of a program to encourage minority students to pursue academic careers.
After his time at Brown University, Gregorian went on to serve as the president of the New York Public Library from 1988 to 1997. During his time there, he was instrumental in the library's renovation and expansion, as well as in raising funds to support the library's operations.
Throughout his career, Gregorian has been a passionate advocate for education and public service. He has served on numerous boards and committees, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Council of Learned Societies. In 2006, he became the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a position he held until his passing in 2021.
Gregorian's contributions to education and society in the United States are immeasurable. He was a true visionary, and his legacy continues to inspire generations of scholars and leaders.
Advocating for Armenian Causes
Gregorian was outspoken about the importance of education in Armenia. He stated in a 2009 interview, "The first thing that Armenia has to invest in, like the Scandinavian countries, is education. Even in the Armenian army, they should teach computer science, mathematics, other sciences."
Lessons and Insights from Vartan's Life
As I reflect on Vartan Gregorian's life, I would like to share some of the lessons and insights that have inspired me to become a better professional, person, and contributor to the Armenian community:
- Be proud of your heritage and embrace the opportunities and responsibilities of your adopted country.
- Foster strong connections and support within your community through education and scholarships.
- Pursue your passions and career with dedication, enthusiasm, and belief in your ability to make a difference.
- Develop excellent written and verbal communication skills to build a network of professionals and beneficiaries.
- Remain open-minded, willing to learn, and engage in meaningful actions with passion.
- Strive to leave a lasting impact on the world – decide if you want to be a comma, colon, word, chapter, or a book in the book of history (I love how he put it here).
- Cultivate a love of learning and discovery, always seeking new knowledge and experiences.
By remembering and applying these lessons, we can honor Vartan Gregorian's legacy and continue his work of shaping a better world and Armenia through education, service, and dedication.