Education and Engagement with Medea Kalognomos
By: Christine Soussa
Medea Kalognomos is a dynamic educator, passionate volunteer, community activist and fashionista. Born in Tehran, Iran, she is fluent in Farsi, English, French and Armenian. Education and teaching are in Medea’s DNA. Her grandmother, Herselia, was born in 1903 in Iran, where there were no schools for girls. Herselia’s father, placing high value on eduction, especially for girls, sent his three daughters to attend school in Tiflis. Thus, value, love and appreciation for education go back generations in Medea’s family.
I (Christine Soussa) had an opportunity to interview Medea and was instantly drawn to her love for teaching and enthusiasm for life.
Tell me a bit about your background?
I grew up in a family with two brothers. My father was a very progressive man. When I was 12 years old, he told me he wanted to discuss something very serious with me. We sat down, and he shared a sip of his beer with me, telling me that receiving a higher education for a girl was a must. He explained that education makes a person independent, and he never wanted me to have to depend on anyone for a living. I was a bit perplexed. I was young and didn’t really understand what he was trying to say, but I never forgot his words.
In Tehran, I attended Jeanne d’Arc, a French bilingual school from first to tenth grade where we studied Language Arts and all other subjects both in French and Farsi. When I was 16 years old, we emigrated to California where I enrolled in Belmont High School in Los Angeles. I did not yet speak English but I did manage to learn it in 6 months. I graduated from high school in 2 years because I was given a year’s credit for my French and other courses I had completed in Iran. I loved my school, especially that my principal and my teachers were impressed with the quality of my education – especially my foreign language, grammar, science and math skills.
After graduation, I attended Los Angeles City College for 2 years after which I transferred to Cal State Los Angeles, but I did not complete my studies because I got married and moved to North Carolina with my husband who was in the Military service at the time. From 1969 to 1973, I worked for John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance teaching Farsi to Special Forces servicemen. After our son was born, I continued my education at the University of North Carolina and received a Bachelor of Science degree in French. In 1981 we moved back to Los Angeles. I started working as a French and ESL teacher at Glendale Unified School District and after 4 years, while teaching full time, I decided to go back to school to get my Master’s degree in Pupil Personal Services. I worked for Glendale Unified School District for 25 years as a career and guidance counselor at Glendale High School.
I retired eleven years ago but I am still active in the field of Education and continue to serve on community organizations as I have for the last 36 years.
You have a very global perspective on education, any comparative thoughts?
I am familiar with the European and the Middle East’s education systems and of course the American one. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about the Armenian education system through my many trips to Armenia.
When I was going to school, every student was expected to succeed. We had 4-5 hours of homework every night. Personal discipline and study skills were highly emphasized. As a consequence, by the time we were in middle school, we had developed very good habits and skills fundamental to our achievement.
Study skills and personal discipline lack in today’s youth. Everywhere in the world young people are more self-indulgent and less interested in academics. Education is faced with many challenges due to each generation’s perspective. For example, the millennial generation is more interested in education that engages them, versus the generation that came before.
Any tips for parents as they think about education for their children?
I find that young parents get intimidated that difficult courses and too much homework may stress their children and have a negative effect on them. My advice to parents is not to be afraid. The most important thing they can do is to be totally involved with their child’s schooling and never lower their standards and expectations. Taking part and being engaged in their children’s learning process makes a difference. I also encourage them to make the learning process part of the daily routine in creative ways.
Playing games that teach, going to museums and watching educational shows are activities that children enjoy with their parents. I know a young mother who taught her children the capitol of every country in the world at the dinner table. I am aware that today’s lifestyle keeps parents very busy but it can be done, even a few minutes a day makes a huge difference.
Today’s parents are more lenient and more permissive not realizing that children like structure, discipline and rules because it gives them a sense of belonging.
How did you fall in love with Education?
I loved school from the time I was little.
School was a place I wanted to be, when I was there the world was mine. I remember when I was little playing with my cousins, I was always the teacher. I guess I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I also love young people. I love to motivate and inspire them, talk to them, hear their ideas. I love connecting with them, guiding them, and sharing their hopes, dreams and goals. I tell them how precious and valuable they are. I retired 10 years ago and I still see my students who remember the times we shared and the impact it had on them and their life.
You are very involved in CASPS – Committee for Armenian Students in Public Schools – Helping Children Bloom, tell me more about that…
CASPS was created under the auspices of the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church in 1994, to meet the educational and social needs of Armenian immigrant students in public schools. We support students by providing academic assistance through our tutoring program and provide opportunities for personal and social skills development by offering an annual leadership workshops. We also encourage artistic development by awarding student work in an annual art contest and honor high school graduates honoring their achievement. At Elementary schools, our Intervention /Prevention Program improves student behavior and develops their personal and social skills. CASPS has collaborated with Glendale Unified School District, serving and supporting students the last 22 years, and with Los Angeles Unified School District, Educational Services Center North/East and North/West, the last ten.
Another organization I serve on is the ANCA-WR – Western Region, Education Committee. We work with the California State Department of Education on the inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in the Public School curriculum and history text books. In February 2017, we plan on recognizing and honoring teachers in public schools State-wide who teach the Armenian Genocide.
You are also involved in AYB School in Yerevan, Armenia….
Yes, AYB was established by a group of young Armenians who left Armenia, went abroad, received an education and decided to go back and help Armenian children in Armenia by opening this school. I was asked to develop a counseling program. In Armenian schools, career and guidance counseling is not a regular department. I met with administrators, teachers and the parent advisory group to help develop a counseling program.
You visit Armenia yearly and do great work there, how did your passion to help Armenia come to be?
My two girlfriends and I went to Armenia in 1997 for the first time to follow our children who had gone as Land and Culture Organization volunteers to renovate churches and community centers for the 1,700 Anniversary of Christianity. When they came back, they shared such amazing stories about their experiences, the people they met, the places they visited and the love they developed for the Homeland. As parents, we thought we had to go see for ourselves. We did, and like them, fell in love with our Homeland.
And now I go every year. I’ve been there 22 times. I am involved with life there and no longer go as a tourist. I love to volunteer and help whichever way I can. I enjoy meeting the people – my brothers and sisters – and getting to know my homeland and its culture. Whether I’m in Yerevan, Artsakh, a village or visiting a historical site, I always discover something that amazes me. My soul soars there. I feel fulfilled and happy in Armenia.
One very rewarding experience was when I volunteered with Smiles International for 2 weeks in Babloian Children’s hospital, as a nurse’s aide preparing children ages 7 weeks to 17 years old for a cleft palate operation. My job was to also teach parents how to take care of their children after the operation. Those were the best 2 weeks of my life.
I visited many orphanages with my girlfriends and asked if there was any way we could help, and the answer was always yes. For example, one time an orphanage desperately needed 62 pairs of shoes. The children did not have shoes. With a mission, we immediately drove to several shoe stores and managed to purchase the 62 pairs of shoes to be delivered to the orphanage. Another needed laundry baskets. Another wanted detergent. Whatever they needed we would get for them.
Orran Children’s Center is another place I volunteer in Armenian where the children of needy families are provided daily meals and helped with homework. I volunteer teaching English to the staff and work with the students. Several years ago, my girlfriend Mimi Zarookian, who is also an educator, and I volunteered to conduct a 3-day staff development for the school.
I am also a member of the Armenian Educational Foundation (AEF) which renovates schools in Armenia and Artsakh. WE provide scholarships for university students, teach civic education, encourage volunteerism and community involvement.
How are the educators in Armenia?
I am so impressed by the dedication of the educators there. They care deeply and work very hard despite the insurmountable obstacles they have overcome and still face. Like other countries, Armenia is faced with many challenges in education and is going through a period of transition to adapt and adjust to the needs of the time.
Two years ago, I visited a school which was literally falling apart. There was only one working bathroom for 350 students. Walls were crumbling from humidity and the furniture and widows were very old, broken and in need of repair. My heart just broke when I saw the condition of the school. I asked the principal how I could help. She told me that while they could withstand all these poor conditions, she was very concerned that her students were not getting any technical training. They didn’t have computers. She asked me if I could help. I told her I would try. I returned to the U.S., did some fund raising and with help of my good friends and family was able to purchase the computers. Needless to say, when we delivered all the computers to the school, it was a very good day for us as well as the students.
Education is essential because it enables people to contribute and connect to communities and countries. Medea Kalognomos is an example of how love for education and passion for life, makes positive global impact. Thank you Medea for all you do, we are lucky to have you in our community!
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