Keeping the human story alive
Diran and Seta Apelian fund $100k endowment for UCI graduate students studying Armenians
By Lilibeth Garcia
Diran and Seta Apelian may have cultural roots all over the world, but their story begins in the Armenian-inhabited Ottoman towns of Gesaria, Sepastia and Adana.
Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman Empire systematically killed over a million Armenians in what’s now called the Armenian Genocide. Survivors, like the Apelians’ ancestors, fled to safety, and diaspora communities sprang up all over the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Researchers in the School of Humanities are now working to preserve what is left of Armenian culture for future generations – an effort made possible thanks to engaged community members like the Apelians.
Diran Apelian, Distinguished Professor of materials science and engineering at UCI, is renowned in academic circles for his innovative work in metal processing and leadership as a researcher and educator. And while he has deep ties to UCI’s Samueli School of Engineering, there is more to his UCI story.
“When UCI’s Armenian Studies Program came to our attention, we were thrilled,” says Diran Apelian.
Passionate about keeping Armenian history and the Western Armenian language alive, the Apelians have recently funded a $100,000 endowment to support graduate students in UCI’s Armenian Studies Program. An endowment creates a legacy – the interest of the gift will support generations of Armenian studies scholars in perpetuity.
A byproduct of the Armenian Genocide that remains today is that the Western Armenian language is in peril. UNESCO declared it an endangered language in 2010, mostly because it’s rarely taught intergenerationally, with fewer and fewer descendants of genocide survivors who live outside of Armenia learning the language. At UCI, however, the language is thriving.
With an active group of supporters, including the Apelians, UCI has grown its offerings in Armenian studies to include two years of instruction in Western Armenian. In addition, the School of Humanities is home to a robust undergraduate and graduate program in Armenian history and offers undergraduates a minor in Armenian studies, while the Center for Armenian Studies offers the community and public a variety of events, including film screenings and book talks.
“The program itself, and what it stands for, is critical for the survival of the Western Armenian language,” Diran Apelian says.
The UCI Center for Armenian Studies is led by Houri Berberian, professor of history and Meghrouni Family Presidential Chair in Armenian Studies.
“The Apelians’ generous support will be a tremendous help to our graduate students as they pursue their research. Because of the far-reaching nature of academic publishing and dissemination of knowledge, the scholarship they produce will have a wide impact beyond the here and now,” says Berberian. “Therefore, endowments like the one established by the Apelians not only facilitate and advance the original research carried out by our graduate students but also contribute to the UCI Armenian Studies as a whole and the broader field of Armenian studies.”
From Armenian studies to human studies
Diran Apelian is no stranger to the humanities, despite being a prominent engineer and scholar. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, European Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Inventors, Armenian Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has received numerous honors and awards, and has 21 patents and over 700 publications. He advocates for bringing a “human dimension” to engineering, particularly when considering the ethical impact of a new technology.
“If you don’t understand how technology impacts humanity, I think you've only got half of the picture,” he says.
The Apelians’ interest in the humanities comes from a shared experience that is both distinctly Armenian and universally human.
As a result of the Armenian Genocide, they share a global heritage. Their parents and grandparents fled the Ottoman Empire and found refuge in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Italy. Diran was born in Egypt, and Seta was born in Israel, although her family later moved to Egypt. They both grew up in Heliopolis, Egypt and were classmates from kindergarten to ninth grade. When they were in their teens, Diran’s family moved to Lebanon and then migrated to the United States; Seta moved to Canada. Two decades later, they reconnected by chance in Montreal and soon got married.
“Everybody's got a story, but the sentiments Seta and I have are not just Armenian sentiments,” says the professor. “They're worldly sentiments. They're of the universe, of our planet.”
It’s a story of “survival,” says Seta, who acknowledges how their global background gives them empathy for all the struggles around the world. For the Apelians, the Armenian story reflects a universal human experience.
Paying it forward
Seta’s father and sister passed away when she was 10 years old. She came of age in Canada with only the support of her mother and brother. “Both of us came to North America without having any money and not knowing much English, and we went through our educational process under a great deal of stress,” Diran recalls. They are grateful for their higher education, which enabled them to have successful careers (Seta is a retired orthodontist) and a family – two daughters and five grandchildren. Now, they feel compelled to give back.
“We want to make sure that the Western Armenian language is sustained, and that, more importantly, young people who are in need will have the resources enabling them to study,” Diran says. “If one thinks education is expensive, the alternative is even more expensive and damaging.”
Bedros Torosian is currently a Ph.D. candidate in history studying Ottoman Armenian migration to the U.S. under the direction of Berberian. As the first in his family to attend college and a descendant of Armenian refugees, he has benefited from the generosity of donors like the Apelians.
“The grants have been immensely valuable for my academic journey at UCI, especially in the context of a global pandemic and as an international student whose home country, Lebanon, is in the state of free fall,” he says. “In a climate of greater financial stability, I was able to make great strides in my studies and research.”
The financial support also enabled Torosian to gain access to new archival collections that formed the core of his dissertation and enroll in an online language class that helped him amplify his expertise in an older Ottoman version of Turkish. Torosian’s research on an early 20th-century Armenian diaspora is just one example of how student funding can change lives while deepening crucial scholarship.
To keep Western Armenian alive, an endowment would secure long-term funding for language instruction at UCI. The School of Humanities also strives to establish an endowed Center for Armenian Diaspora Studies. The Apelians’ endowment is a step in those directions.
“Hopefully, others will join in, because it's not about us, it's about the generation of students that will benefit from it,” says Diran. “And then, when they get to be older, they can do the same. Let’s call it the circle of goodness.”
“They can continue the chain,” Seta concludes.
Donors like the Apelians play a vital role in ensuring the UCI School of Humanities' brilliant future. Launched in 2016 with support from the Orange County community, the UCI Armenian Studies Program provides a range of academic offerings and engagement opportunities focused on Armenia and the Armenian diaspora to both the UCI community and Orange County community. To support Armenian Studies Program scholars and events that matter, consider making a gift today.
Photo credit: Steve Zylius/UCI