01 August 2013, 11:37
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Woman of the Year

Alice Petrossian - mother, grandmother, wife, educator, community activist, philanthropist, Assistant Superintendent. The list of her accomplishments and accolades could easily go on for pages. It might be easier to simply agree with the California State Legislature and call her, "Woman of the Year".

I anticipated a mess when I came in, the signs of the stressful, chaotic life of someone whose resume resembles a business school course catalogue, of someone for whom the word workaholic seems to have been created. Instead, I saw nothing but harmony and tranquility. The beautiful, delicate orchids positioned on the round table in a stylish and well–lit office were real, as was everything else, including the tears she shared that so moved me when she started talking about her “kids”. The main question soon emerged - not simply what Alice Petrossian does but how she does it? It is hard to single out the role that best describes her – strong educator, career woman, or resolute humanitarian. A charismatic woman, a dedicated wife and parent - she is all these things in equal measure.
Alice Petrossian is the Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services for the Glendale Unified School District. A 30-year journey with the school district has, she says, been a privilege; I am sure her employers feel the same way. The Armenian Educational Foundation (involved with scholarships and school renovation projects), The Armenian Relief Society, The Character and Ethics Project (sponsored by The Glendale Chamber of Commerce), The Glendale Community Foundation, The ACSA (Association of California School Administrators), the “No Child Left Behind” Task Force, are just a few of the vast number of educational and humanitarian organizations that Alice has worked with in her vibrant career. Alice Petrossian devoted enormous amounts of time and effort to working with troubled, underachieving and minority youth in her early years as a high school teacher; and has continued to work on their behalf to resolve corresponding issues at district and regional levels in this latest phase of her career.
Mrs. Petrossian has traveled to Armenia annually for the last eight years with the intention of improving the facilities in Armenian schools, which have long needed revitalization. Back in the US, she dedicates every spare minute and financial resource to shipping school supplies to our Motherland. Even thousands of miles away, she never truly leaves Armenia for it is always in her heart. As the former Director of Special Projects and Intercultural Education for the Glendale Unified School District, Mrs. Petrossian is especially sympathetic toward immigrant students. She herself is an immigrant who came to the United States from Iran at the age of nine, only to find that her exposure to those less fortunate, as it seemed to a sensitive child, had uncovered her capacity for genuine compassion and humility. Her benevolent spirit is indeed transparent…she is a passionate and straightforward conversationalist and public speaker, who inspires and instills intellectual and moral substance with a motherly smile.

What makes an ultimate educator?
The most crucial? You have to love children. It has to be about your client - a child, it cannot be about you. There has to be enormous dedication. You also have to be bright, knowledgeable and educated. You have to be selfless. For me it has always been a cause, every child succeeding, reaching their academic goal.

Why underachieving, troubled children? Is there a story behind it?
There is. I was an immigrant child in America. When we arrived we were very poor. I only spoke Farsi and Armenian. We ended up in the middle of an African-American community and I was the only white child in my school. I then thought that all Americans must be black. I understood pain of being different, poor, or handicapped. I learned the hard way that a caring teacher makes a difference. I had a teacher that became my mentor and did everything she could for me.

You speak Armenian fluently and your Farsi is limited. Can you tell me about how you see your cultural identity now, is it purely Armenian?
We spoke Farsi when we first arrived. Now we only do when we have a Farsi-speaking guest. As a child I spoke fluent Farsi, I let it go. My grandmother (a Russian-speaker by the way) told me that I needed to learn all these languages and stick with them. I (as a ten-year old child) told her that I would only learn one. Of course it had to be Armenian. My native language is technically English, everything else was either forcefully maintained or maintained out of love.
My cultural identity is very mixed. My husband and I are both from Iran. His grandfather is from Gyumri, part of his family is from Van. My father’s side is purely “Vanetsi” and my mother’s purely Russian Armenian. Overall, ours is a multi-cultural family in a multi-cultural nation.

So you were raised with an Armenian spirit?
The spirit was deeper than you can imagine. Living in this country for 50 years while being one of the first families in this community and never losing that love and the language… I did not even understand what that was about when I was a child. As I grew up I realized that the preservation of the language and culture was crucial. Then it became almost a cause for me. That is why my children had to learn the language and their kids as well. I am a strong American but my love is still Armenia.

You communicate a lot with the youth. Obviously, we have areas to improve. Do we have something to embrace?
Well, about 20% of our students are high-achieving. They are absolute models. My concern is that the majority of them are women. I would like to see more of our men succeed. We have a specific strata in both Armenia and the United States. I get to work with high-achieving students and give out scholarships in Yerevan on behalf of Armenian Educational Foundation, but there is a group that is not interested in education. I think that group has not been motivated properly.

You seem to recognize our nation for what it is and what it is not, yet you are deeply in love with it…
I guess for me it is a sacred nation. So much we have suffered and so much has been tried on us. But we have succeeded, we are here. We have shown the world what a small nation can do. We have many young professionals volunteer – doctors, lawyers, helping immigrant children who have problems. How can you not love these people?

What do you think the “national pride” phenomenon of Armenians has to do with?
I think it comes to us with our mother’s milk. It is genetic. When my mother sang to me when I was born, we were in Iran, though her songs were in Armenian. I heard Armenian language when I went to church. I never stop dreaming of buying a house in Armenia.

Can you tell me about yourself as a mother?
I wish you could ask my boys about that. I probably have done more for others than for my own children. But they always told me that the quality of time I spent with them is more important than quantity. At least three weeks a year we travel - be it Armenia, be it other countries. And I am married to an Armenian who happens to be an exception to any other. There is so much love and respect in our relationship. I think no woman can do what I do without the support of her family and I have been blessed with that. In Armenian families you can talk and share. I am also very religious and I do not go to bed without prayer.

Do you think that people are measured by the work they do in their lifetime?
Well, you have to leave a legacy. If you leave a beautiful house with marble as your legacy you will soon be forgotten. In my family, if we have extra money we use it to remodel schools in Armenia. Helping start ORRAN is one of my legacies.

Armenians who come from different backgrounds seem to emphasize their differences instead of their similarities. What do you think can unite us as a nation?
You would think that the genocide would do that. The key to me is for us to look at our roots. If we all look at our roots we are going to find we are the same. I strongly believe that the next generation to grow up in America will not look at that. When we just came here there were only 50 of us and we all loved each other.

What is your greatest accomplishment?
My children are my greatest accomplishment. That would be the legacy I leave. Besides, they get to continue in my causes and they already are doing that. My whole family is involved in humanitarian activities.

What is the motto, a wisdom that you live by?
I live by “do not do things right but do the right things”. One can rob a bank perfectly, but is it the right thing to do? I also like this one – “the power is not finite, power is infinite, the more of it you give away, the more of it you have.” Love for me is being good to someone else.

If you had an opportunity to address our nation, what would you say to them?
Something Winston Churchill said – “never give up”. We cannot give up. We have a small piece of land that many generations fought to keep. We were once a great power in our history. Do not let the corruption, the evil let down your spirit. Just know that good will prevail and our nation will stand strong again. Also another piece of advice - whatever we do we must do through peaceful means. We can make a difference, every one of us. And our only hope is educating our young, we need to do it right.

Yerevan Magazine, Fall, N2, 2008

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