When Brian Leopold joined the Peace Corps three years ago, he didn’t know his deciscion to select Eastern Europe as his destination would lead him to a life changing experience in Armenia. The Michigan State University graduate knew very little about Armenia, and his only exposure to it was an Armenian friend he had in college.
“Back in Michigan, I have an Armenian friend,” Brian said. “We had a party at his place before my departure and he told me a little but about his country, but that was it.”
Brian arrived in Baghramyan, a village in the Ararat region not far from Yerevan. The first three months he spent in Armenia were dedicated to learning the language. He was then transferred to Tumanyan, a small community in the Lori region, where he began to teach English to local students.
Around the same time, the COAF creativity lab was launched in the Tumanyan school. This was Brian’s first exposure to COAF. “It’s where I was first introduced to COAF, which was an amazing experience,” he said. In order to further his opportunities to teach and work with kids, he began working with COAF. “I joined the English Access Micro-Scholarship Program, part of COAF’s partnership with the US Embassy,” he said.
His experience working alongside COAF staff was on he won’t forget/ “My greatest memory will be having worked with Marine Miskaryan, a COAF English teacher. She’s amazing! It‘s astonishing to see the progress that children from Tumanyan, Akori and Debet made!”
Brian was astounded at the remarkable improvement he saw in the students during his time there. “At first, they couldn’t even say their names, and now they are talking about diversity and other complex things. I’m even forgetting my Armenian because the kids speak only English to me.”
Brian’s work with COAF involved helping out with the implementation of Rosetta Stone in their English lessions. The online self-study language learning project had a booming effect on the students’ progress.
Brian’s work did not stop at academics, however. “I am in charge of the girls’ soccer league in Lori,” he said.
Brian was impressed by the methods COAF uses to uplift the young generation of Armenians. “I like the way COAF helps villages,” he said. “You don’t just donate computers and money but you continuously work with beneficiaries. Before COAF, people in villages had no future.”
Often times, villagers have to leave their communities to look for jobs. Brian commemorated COAF’s work in changing this fact. “COAF came and instilled confidence in them… You gave them options to stay in villages, to survive and thrive. You gave opportunities to the new generation.”
He was impressed by the new perspectives COAF provided to rural communities. “You bring in American speakers that have different perspectives, which is very important. And I also like the fact that “Yerevan doesn’t always tell the villages what to do” but hires local professionals and contributes to their development.“
Brian observed first-hand the contrast between rural Armenia and Yerevan. “As soon as I moved to Tumanyan I felt there were basically ‘two Armenias’ – Yerevan and “outside Yerevan” he said. Those born and raised in Yerevan live in a seemingly different world than those in rural areas. “The life in the capital is different; the pace is much faster. Whereas in villages, everything is a lot more personal.”
“It is very unusual – somehow you happen to know everyone in your community; you share your stories with your neighbors; they call Lori people –-the Loretsi– are “miamit” (naïve) but they are just the kindest people in the world,” he said. The Lori region is home to a sign that says Dba Lavy, which means Towards a Better Life or Towards a Better Place. “Lori is really a nice place. I was blown away by the beauty of Tumanyan. It was fantastic. I feel like I am ‘Loretsi’. In fact, people in my village call me ‘Loretsi Brian’!”
The differences between American and Armenian culture were definitely palpable during Brian’s stay. ““Kids in villages had some stereotypes about Americans from Hollywood movies. They thought all Americans had blue eyes, blonde hair, were wealthy and had expensive cars,” he said. Brian had to explain that this stereotype isn’t accurate—and taught them about real American culture. “I had to explain that Americans have different shapes and sizes,” he said.
Though Brian’s family was originally concerned with him moving to a totally new place, they came around. “My mother is quite religious and when she learned I was going Armenia– the first nation that had adopted Christianity as the state religion– she was very happy about it,” he said. Brian’s family was able to visit him in Armenia last summer. He took them to Lori, and they were astounded by the kindness of all the people in the region.
Brian’s volunteer experience with COAF is soon coming to an end. Upon returning to the United States, he will be continuing his studies in Comparative Culture and Politics. “I hope my work will bring me back to this part of the world again,” he said. “I will always remember the days I spent here – the sound of the streams in my village, the birds, the peaceful nature and, most importantly, my students and ‘Loretsi’ people.”
COAF was more than happy to have Brian as a volunteer, and are always thankful to receive help from those who are genuinely passionate about bringing opportunities to rural Armenia. We cannot wait to see what Brian has in store for him in his career, and we hope to see him back on Armenian soil sometime soon!