Anoush Baghdassarian ’17 ‘doubles down’ with two fellowship awards

For Anoush Baghdassarian ’17, this summer is a double-header (and we’re not talking baseball). Among the select group of fellowship winners from the College this year, Baghdassarian won — and accepted — two awards: a Humanity in Action Fellowship (HiA) and a Davis Projects for Peace fellowship.

“I have never met a student as dedicated to international human rights issues as Anoush,” said Brian Davidson ’08, Director of Fellowships Advising in the Center for Global Education at CMC. “But what’s special about her is that she is not only a zealous advocate, but also a real intellectual, who wrestles with the best ways to confront those who commit morally heinous acts.”

Baghdassarian, a dual major in Psychology and Spanish with a sequence in Holocaust and Human Rights studies, and whom Davidson terms a “brilliant student,” graduated magna cum laude. She wrote two separate theses: an examination of the moral psychology in human rights abuses, and a play written entirely in Spanish about the military dictatorship in Argentina.

“She is an ideal candidate for these fellowships,” Davidson said. “The Humanity in Action program will take her to Berlin in order to study the legacy of human rights in Europe, covering topics such as the Holocaust, “Islamophobia,” and immigrant issues. She will then turn to Armenia, where she will complete her Davis Project for Peace by documenting and publicizing the experiences of Syrian-Armenians escaping the devastation in their country.”

As part of her month-long Humanity in Action fellowship, Baghdassarian has visited the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen, one of the 30,000 labor camps that existed in Germany during WWII.

“These trips were very meaningful to me,” Baghdassarian said, “because I could put into perspective everything I had learned in my Researching the Holocaust Class with Professor Wendy Lower in fall semester.” Baghdassarian believes that experiential activities, including those at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights and as part of her Holocaust and Human Rights Sequence, were instrumental to learning and solidifying knowledge.

Baghdassarian's Davis fellowship in Armenia will entail collecting testimony from Syrian-Armenian refugees and creating a digital archive. The testimonies will eventually be placed in thePomegranate Foundationto be used for educational, juridical, research, and humanizing purposes.

“I wanted to collect the narratives of these 17,000 Syrian-Armenian refugees and tell their stories in an effort to humanize this aggregate statistic of ‘4 million refugees’ and so that their stories are not lost to history,” Baghdassarian said.

Before her hectic schedule begins in earnest, we caught up with Baghdassarian to talke about the fellowships and what’s in store for her this summer.

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CMC: How did you feel when you learned you had won not one but two fellowships?

Baghdassarian: I am so grateful about both of these opportunities. I applied to many different fellowships at the beginning of the year and I thought to myself, “I'm going for each one that means something to me, but I won't fervently expect to get anything.” Each time I received notice that I made it to the next round, I was truly ecstatic! I forwarded the email to Brian immediately with the subject “good news!” It made me feel great about my hard work and grateful for the people who had contributed their time and resources to this hoped-for outcome.

CMC: Why did you decide to vie for the awards and what do the fellowships mean to you personally?

Baghdassarian: Each fellowship means something very special to me. The Humanity in Action fellowship defines my desire to move forward as a human rights scholar and allows me the opportunity to grow as a person and intellectual in a field that I find so meaningful. I think that new perspectives are always important. To step out of my world of Holocaust and Genocide studies and to engage in a deeper study of “human rights” in general, I am learning the discourse of a field in a more in-depth way than I had with my narrow focuses in school.

I'd like to share something that helps define what I thought of this program and the tools it would give me. This was my response to an essay question in the application, which asked me to comment on the themes of the program. I wrote:

“In his “Nichomachean Ethics,” Aristotle explains that to be virtuous, one must be actually and counterfactually reliable. That is, one must have done, presently do, and will do the right thing even in circumstances one will never face. Although a difficult task, HiA prepares Fellows to be counterfactually reliable in a world that needs such virtuous people. A critical underlying theme in the film, Just People, and across the programs, is to prevent bystanders and encourage intervention against injustice. Through education of our society's imperfect history and through collaborative exploration of how to become Screamers (Samantha Powers), HiA provides Fellows with the necessary tools to stand up to pending injustice. By fostering actual reliability through days of action (Copenhagen) and encouraging understanding of the construction of the 'other' (Warsaw), HiA teaches Fellows to preemptively reject the mechanisms of moral disengagement that inhibit intervention, and adopt the ones that foster virtue.”

The Davis Project was another fellowship I looked forward to throughout my college career. As a freshman, I remember going to Professor Lower's office a few weeks before the application was due and talking about the opportunity. I thought it was too short of notice, but she encouraged me to keep going. I loved this support and was so eager to continue thinking of Davis Projects. This year, my idea for a Davis Project coincided with a well thought-out proposal I already had for my Fulbright grant.

CMC: How in the world will you be able to fulfill the obligations of both fellowships? 

Baghdassarian: I was strategic, but also lucky that these fellowships fit together so I could participate in both. When I was planning for fellowships back in the summer of 2016, I chose to apply for the ones with the time commitments that all worked well with each other. I applied for Humanity in Action which would be in June, and then Davis which could be flexible since I create the dates. I decided that if I got Davis, I would make it for July and August.

In terms of obligations, that’s tough – each fellowship requires me to continue working with it once it’s over. Davis requires me to continue my work in a sustainable way; this means I am required to check in continuously to see if my work is truly having an impact, and if not, what we can do about it. With HiA, I have to implement my action project, which will also be a time commitment. In order to balance the two things and not spread myself too thin, I think I am going to do my action project on something related to my Davis project. This could perhaps be a play that I would then publish and perform in New York, based on the lives of those I meet in Armenia. Alternatively, I am thinking about creating and publishing a book of short essays, or even fictionalized short stories, about those I meet and title it “100 Years of Displacement: A Collection of Short Stories Humanizing the Aggregate Statistic of Today's Global Refugee Community.” I say 100 years of displacement because the Syrian-Armenian community that is now in Armenia has a great amount of ancestors who were deported from Eastern Turkey during the Armenian Genocide, so for many of these families, it has been almost 100 years of displacement.

CMC: Who at CMC helped you to go after and/or apply for the fellowships?

Baghdassarian: There were many people at CMC who were instrumental to this fellowship process. The first, and perhaps most instrumental person I'd like to acknowledge is CMC's fellowship advisor, Brian Davidson. At the end of my junior year, I made an appointment to meet with Brian because I wanted to learn about what opportunities would be available to me after I graduated. This was also the first time I met Brian and it was such a wonderful interaction! He was glad I came in because he had heard so much about me and he was going to reach out to me if I hadn't come in to speak with him. It was a pleasure, or more so, a privilege, to work with him this past year.

When I didn't believe in myself, he did. Two days before the application was due, I questioned the significance of my Fulbright research project, and he really helped me out of that cycle of self-doubt. When I would give excuses and say, "Oh but this fellowship typically goes to graduate students, or people with many more achievements than me, or someone who is more serious and professional," he would knock those misconceptions because he genuinely believed that I had a chance. Working with Brian gave me confidence to apply to these different opportunities. His support was highly instrumental in my success, and I am truly grateful for Brian!

Other people who greatly helped me at CMC were my professors. Professor Lower helped me with my statement of grant purpose for my Fulbright research proposal — making the arguments and research methods stronger. Many other professors, like Professor Valdesolo and Professor Hernandez, helped me with letters of recommendation and were interested in my work. I am excited for all the students who are currently passing through, who will pass through in the future, and who will have similar experiences to mine and build the wonderful support networks that I was so lucky to have.

I also want to thank my friends at CMC who supported me throughout this whole process of applying to fellowships. Many of them read over my essays and personal statements, offering me feedback and edits. They were so genuinely willing to help and I'm so grateful for this spirit of collaboration and help that pushed me forward.

CMC: Will the fellowships help you in pursuing your chosen course of study and career?

Baghdassarian: I think that both fellowships are extremely correlated with my course of study and my career path. I love finding the intersections between all my fields of study and new experiences. For example, in the HiA fellowship, I used what I've learned in psychology classes to understand the “mechanisms of moral disengagement” that allowed normal people to participate in grave crimes against humanity. Although I've just graduated, I'm already brainstorming for new opportunities that would allow me continue my studies. Perhaps, in addition to law school, I could continue my education in social psychology or in moral philosophy. In terms of concrete pursuits and career advancement, I feel as though these two fellowships will provide me with an unparalleled learning experience that will transform the type of scholar and person I am. More so, I hope to gain insights through which I can see the world in a more expanded, holistic, and meaningful way; hopefully in a way that will allow me be more intellectually and emotionally credible.

CMC: What are you looking forward to most about each fellowship?

Baghdassarian: For HiA, I look forward to being intellectually stimulated from the programming, and I've been very satisfied with how the program has gone so far. Each day I challenge and am challenged by others from this diverse group of sharp minds. My group has fellows from the U.S., France, Greece, Syria, Germany, Poland, and Ukraine — I love the diversity of thought and perspective that comes from that. I look forward to learning, to my action project, and to embarking on that journey through the HiA network and community.

In terms of Davis, I am more humbled by my expectations for that project. That project directly involves others and while I have been speaking a lot about what “I” will get out of the HiA fellowship, I hope that “I” am not the center of the Davis Project. My main hope is that the people with whom I work feel comfortable with me, and feel empowered by telling their story, and that they feel like this project helped (or will help) them in the (near) future. It would be a shame to carry out this “project for peace” under my own vision of what “peace” is, without considering if what I'm doing is really best for the community and their needs. I expect myself to be conscientious and aware, as to ensure that I do not impose my own Western biases on what “help” means in this situation. Hopefully, the project is able to mold to the needs and desires of the refugee community, while still collecting their testimonies in a way to humanize and hear these people.

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