My love affair with English started in 1988, on December 7th. While at school as a 7th grader, a devastating earthquake of 6.8 magnitude shook Armenia on a winter Wednesday morning, at 11:41 am. The epicenter was very close to my hometown, Gumry. As a result, half a million people were left homeless and 35,000 people lost their lives. I was one of the lucky survivors, one of the 10 survivors from a 35-student classroom, and one of the 450 survivors from the 900- student school. That day, I lost my close friends and a few relatives. My parents saved me by pulling me under the rumble after I was hanging from one of my legs for 7 hours and bleeding from my head. I also had multiple hip injuries, bone fractures, leading to being disabled and confined to a wheelchair for quite some time. The loss of my friends and my physical injuries “sent” me to depression for years to come. During that time, I met many kind-hearted Westerners who rushed to Armenia to assist in many different ways. Chiropractors and doctors, among many other professionals, were there to assist, but there was one major problem: we could not understand one another. They all knew English while we spoke Armenian and Russian as a second language.
At a young age, I learned about the power of English. If only I could explain to the doctors and to my kind-hearted chiropractor what I was feeling and where it was hurting! Eventually, we found other ways to communicate. I learned how to exercise. I was full of desire to get back on my feet, to walk on my own, and yes, even to run. While I knew I had a second chance at life, a rebirth, on December 7th, I was not the human being I used to be, neither physically, nor emotionally. I made it my life’s goal to learn English so I could help people through my multi-lingual abilities.
Within three years, I got back to my feet through perseverance, grit, and hard work and mastered enough English to take the university acceptance tests. Through hard work, I was accepted to major in English. While a student, I found jobs as an interpreter, did a lot of translations for foreigners who fell in love with Armenia and never left after the earthquake. I also translated documents, tapes and books. Then, with my hard-earned money, I started joining different student exchange programs and travelled the world.
It is through another student exchange program that I came to the United States of America and fell in love with the country and the people. As patriotic as I was as an Armenian, this was the place I wanted to live and grow. Never ever and nowhere did I find so many opportunities as a young well-travelled immigrant as in California. Then, in two years, I met the love of my life here, got married, started attending Mission College in 2001, then transferred to SJSU to study for my Master’s in Linguistics. Before I knew it, there was a tutoring job opening in the English Writing Center at Mission College. I applied, got accepted and felt like the happiest person to be able to come back to Mission!
While a student at Mission, those support centers felt like a second home for me. I used to spend a lot of time there before transferring. These centers helped me to learn and adapt to the local culture, a culture that I had chosen to be part of. Although my long term goal was to become a Computational Linguist since I spoke four languages by then (Armenian, Russian, English and German), the fact that my students would come to the Writing Center and look for me in particular kept me there, at Mission. One day, my colleague, Christine Ritz from the English department, told me about an open position in the English department and encouraged me to apply. I wondered how on earth she could think of it since “I have an accent!” She gently replied, “but you also have the qualifications to teach, plus, the students… they come and ask for you, even when there are other tutors available here.” That was it for me; I knew I was not wise enough to choose the right career for myself, and inside, I knew my students knew better, and that they needed me, and that I HAD TO BE THERE FOR THEM. I guess by then I knew enough English to help others. I had found my calling, rather, my calling had found me right here, at Mission!
Advice I have for my/our students: Keep your eyes, ears and mind open to see what professions that are around us. Sometimes we think we know what is best for us, but in reality, we are not always right. We should allow the “life’s energy” to take us to places we have not been to before. It is also important to take the time and create positive relationships with people around us. Moreover, I want to remind my students of the power of English. I have travelled the world with English. This language has “kicked open” so many doors for me that I have lost count. Please study hard, practice English writing a lot, read in English a lot; at least 25% of each white-collar job is spent on writing and reporting. This language will take you to places and will secure jobs and opportunities for you, but you must believe in it first and become good at it. Don’t wait until you are hanging from one of your legs and fighting for your life to appreciate life. Take full advantage of the opportunities our amazing college and this powerful country have to offer us!
Chancellor of West Valley-Mission Community College District
I often tell people that I couldn’t have moved any further from my hometown and still lived in the United States. Certainly, my life’s journey from Erie, Pennsylvania to Silicon Valley was a long one, but not so much in distance as in personal growth. While I certainly don’t miss the freezing weather and record snowfall, my childhood shaped the belief that education can transform both our lives and the world around us. Growing up, neither of my parents had a college education, but worked hard at relatively low paying jobs to provide for the family, while often concealing the difficulty of their financial plight. My father’s decision to return to school and complete his degree despite tremendous obstacles, and the resulting stability and happiness it gave to my family, cemented my commitment to helping others achieve their educational goals.
One thing that many people don’t know about me is that I played two NCAA sports in college, baseball and basketball. Many of those experiences continue to shape my life today. Athletics taught me how to set long-term goals, communicate effectively, build strong teams, and how to manage adversity. It also fundamentally taught me about the systemic and unrelenting challenges with bias and discrimination that many of my closest friends and teammates faced on a daily basis. I witnessed their very real frustrations which shaped my perspectives on creating campus environments where everyone feels safe, supported, and valued by the institution and each other.
By background and inclination, I am both idealistic and pragmatic. These traits, coupled with my life experiences and legal education, have allowed me to find the perfect professional home in public higher education. I am motivated daily by the challenge to serve the public good and meet the needs of a society looking to the academy for leadership and fresh perspectives. I believe that we can together work toward a fair and equitable society that is marked by a respect for diversity of thought, culture, and science and our engagement as considerate citizens in service to others. At Mission College, we can shape our future by championing the wonderfully diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas present at all levels of decision-making and in every part of our communities.
I hope to bring the same combination of idealism and pragmatism to the role of Chancellor. I am honored to be part of a community of educators that stands behind our students as we work together to provide an education with value, promote diversity, maintain a supportive community, pursue social justice, and foster open debate and dialogue while running a caring and ethically strong institution. I want our students to know that they are at the heart of every decision we make. I endeavor to demonstrate to the rest of the country that educational and civic leaders of the most important region in the United States are working together with resolute commitment to develop our workforce, support the intellectual life of Silicon Valley, and expand the American Dream and that all of this is done with a focus on the common good for our community, our country, and indeed the world.
My advice to students: Never waver in pursuit of your goals and commit yourself every day to moving one step closer to the life you have imagined. You can succeed over self-doubt or societal expectations and become the best version of you if you simply refuse to give up. Because of your indomitable will, I have seen ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things every day at Mission College. Remember, everyone at Mission College is rooting for you to grab your diploma from my hands at graduation and stride confidently across the stage in the direction of your dreams.
Faculty, Hospitality Management, 1996-present
Department Chair, July 1998 – June 2017
Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I was raised by a single mom of modest means who instilled in me that college was not an option; it was a must! I don’t remember ever considering or being allowed to consider any career pathway that did not include earning my education.
And for as long as I can remember, I wanted to become a dentist! I recall that I was never afraid of the dentist and only really considered that one career pathway for most of my youthful years. Performing well in high school, I was accepted into a 6-year dental program and thought I was all set. My friends and peer family members were all primed to go to a four-year college immediately upon high school graduation. At this point I must interject that at nowhere in the post high school landscape did the community college option surface. In fact, I have memories of my friends and I speaking poorly of those “slackers” who could only get into a community college. This was common sentiment in the University City suburb of St. Louis back in the 1980’s; that the community college was for those who could not get accepted into a “real” college. So here I am in my senior year, dental school bound and feeling pretty impressed with my academic, athletic, and really, overall performance to-date. Life was good and was only going to get better.
But one fateful day, I drove a friend to take a fitness test for the Naval Academy (Annapolis) and that’s when my life took a radical turn. During this time, a movie out called Taps portrayed the trials and challenges of the first black cadet to attend a military academy. This movie was mine, as well as my mom’s only exposure to places such at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. The more I learned about the rigorous, prestige and elite admissions process in order to be admitted to Annapolis, or another academic military organization, the more intrigued I became. Out of pride and curiosity, I wanted to test my limits and wound up applying for, and receiving, an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Co. I had also convinced myself that I might one day get to fly F-16 fighter jets. While I performed well enough in high school to earn an appointment, it was the case at the academy that I found myself on academic probation the entire time! It was my first major failure in my life, as during the early summer of 1987 I was academically dis-enrolled from the United States Air Force Academy. I departed with a GPA that was just under 2.0; totally foreign territory for me up until this point in my life. After this, I tried to reach out to the colleges that had originally accepted me but with the low GPA, no one was willing to take me. In the span of three years I had gone from someone who had been accepted into each and every college applied for, including the Academy, to not being able to get into any college at all, well … almost any college. Ironically, the community college that I had put down as being “just for the slackers” would be my saving grace.
So, I’m back home, feeling depressed, embarrassed and disappointed but still maintaining the sentiment that college was a must. I didn’t make the connection while growing up, but at age 12 I began working at a snack shop that my uncle owned on the Mississippi River, at the foot of the Gateway Arch. But as previously stated, while growing up I was focused elsewhere, and my growing up jobs could have been any jobs; they just happened to be at a tourist snack bar and fast food. My sister chimes in and advises me to go “try out” the food service classes at the local community college, since I had all those years working in food. In fact, in addition to working for my uncle I also did the ubiquitous fast food gig during my senior year, as did all my college-bound friends.
I listened to my sister, registered for hospitality classes at the community college, and naturally exceled in them. I also happened to secure a job at the newly constructed Courtyard by Marriott hotel, not too far from my home. Turns out I had a knack for working in, and then supervising, fast-paced food service businesses. I was quickly promoted in my work at the Courtyard Marriott. At the time there was so much synergy between what I was learning in the classroom and actual related work experience. I had also picked up a second job supervising food service on Mississippi riverboat cruises, just down the river from where I worked as a child.
After two years and earning my AS Degree, I once again found myself in great academic standing, so my next step was applying to 4-year universities. I’d done well enough (again) to gain acceptance to every four-year university to which I had applied. I had also received multiple grants and scholarships and recall clearly that I was bragging (just a little) about having my first year of college all but paid for. Life was getting better and I was once again becoming impressed with myself. After all, I had failed in a major way, but was not only bouncing back, but doing so in good order.
I narrowed my choices down to Cornell University and UNLV – The University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Cornell’s tuition proved too expensive, so I ended up for the first time in my life in front of slot machines, craps and blackjack tables and video poker machines. Losing all my tuition and rent money within a few days at the casino was a harsh lesson to learn and I had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and to pay my tuition during my first term at UNLV. Earning a Master’s degree was always in the plan as well, but during these tough times I could not envision earning my MS immediately after graduating from UNLV. In fact, it would be well into my tenure as a full-time faculty when I would earn my MS degree.
After I graduated and earned my bachelor’s degree, I was offered several positions as a director or manager. With each promotion I had to pack up and relocate, and eventually wound up in the Bay Area. My sister lived in Hayward at the time, so it was very nice being in proximity. Both my sister and her husband were educators. My brother-in-law taught, was a Chair and retired from Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), and my sister taught in two departments and retired from Chabot Community College. I was working now at Stanford University, loving life here in California but was seriously contemplating an offer that would have required me to move to San Antonio Texas, which was one of my destination places to live due to the abundance of close family present there. Here again my sister offered her wisdom and advice. She had seen a job announcement for a full-time instructor at a “small” community college near Great America. What’s so funny is that teaching never crossed my mind until my sister nudged me to just give it a try! Lo and behold, here I am, 23 years later at Mission College and loving what I do!
My advice to students: Pay attention to ALL aspects of your life, personal, professional, and other. Do not assume that because everything seems on track in one area that all is well and in good order across the scope of your life. Stay open to opportunities that may come your way but be forward thinking and deliberate. Take responsibility for the decisions you make and be thoughtful about who you surround yourself with. The consequences of some actions are fleeting while the impact of others will stretch across a lifetime. Set worthwhile goals and judge questionable choices and potential circumstances against their ability to help or hinder you in reaching your goals. Finally, develop a trusting relationship with a few wise people in your life that you’re willing to listen to!
I’ve been asked what “drives” me to be who I am today, and this takes me back to a vivid memory from childhood: When my parents got divorced, my mom fell apart and became emotionally withdrawn due to over-reliance on my dad. He had taken care of everything but due to a drinking problem after his military discharge, he was tussling with his own demons. Seeing my mom struggle broke my heart. I thought to myself at that moment: “this will never happen to me; I will not rely on someone so much that I can’t pull myself back up.” This is where my fierce independence came to be and continues to this day.
Academics was always a priority for me regardless of what was happening at home. My parents didn’t go to college so there was very little discussion about it at home and no one to help me navigate through the system. Tina, my cheerleading buddy and best friend in high school, had parents who were teachers and because of our cheerleading schedule, we spent a lot of time together. It seemed as if her family talked about college and education almost every day and that excited me. Her parents became my mentors and all the advice they gave Tina, she passed on to me. So every class Tina chose, I chose. Every exam she took, I took. Every college she applied to, I applied to! I followed her every move!
I heard about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) at a church event. When I asked a high school counselor and Tina’s parents about possibly attending an HBCU, they all dismissed my inquiry stating that HBCUs did not provide as good of an education as California public colleges. I considered them “experts in education” and was simply too naïve then to question this further. In retrospect, what I learned and would like to share with my colleagues: If a student asks a question about something you don’t know about, tell them you don’t know and then, together, help them find the answer. Help them explore their options!
Although I was admitted to UCLA and SDSU, I chose to attend UC Davis for three reasons - because of its "college-town" feel, because of its proximity to home and because Tina was attending (yes, I was still following her!). I have no regrets about the choice I made because UC Davis really shaped me! I didn’t know what I didn’t know and learned so much about myself, my history and my culture. My first year, I lived in an all-white dormitory with Tina and just across the quad was a multicultural themed dorm that I quickly gravitated to. I hung around more African American students, something that I didn’t have an opportunity to do so in high school, and even joined an African American sorority (Delta Sigma Theta). For years I felt like a puzzle piece that almost fit but not quite perfectly. At UCD, with my new community, I finally fit! The puzzle felt complete!
Now, after 30 years of counseling, teaching and working on various other projects (20 of those years at Mission), I am circling back around to the importance of “the puzzle.” I want students, especially African American students, to feel that “fit” and to feel like they belong, no matter where they pursue their education. I now serve on the California Community College Chancellor’s Office HBCU Advisory Committee, assisting in the development of more HBCU transfer guarantees for students. I am also working with faculty, staff and administrators to help build a stronger, more supportive African American community at Mission. We are doing this by coordinating culturally relevant activities and events which, we hope, will lay the foundation for our future Umoja Program.
My advice to students: Use your resources and ask questions. One of my favorite sayings is “closed mouths don’t get fed” so don’t be afraid to ask questions and be vulnerable. You’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to help and support you! And lastly, if you do not fit into the puzzle you think you are supposed to fit into, don’t be afraid to try a different puzzle!
Fun fact about me: Unlike many Bay Area folks, I absolutely love hot weather! Being outdoors, near the water and under the bright sun centers me and brings me joy!!