Kentina Saxon (OPIT Armenia 2018)
Following an intensive educational and cultural study abroad experience in Yerevan, Armenia, through the Overseas Professional & Intercultural Training (OPIT) Internship Program in Summer 2018, Kentina Saxton reflected on her experiences in an interview with American Councils:
American Councils (AC): How did you first become interested in Armenia?
Kentina Saxon: I found out about OPIT through an opportunity to a be an e-Intern with the Virtual Student Foreign Service (now Virtual Student Federal Service), which was recommended to me by a regional Foreign Service Officer at one of my school’s career fairs. My assignment was with EducationUSA Armenia, from Fall of 2017 to Spring of 2018. This was also the first time I had ever heard of Armenia outside of Hollywood culture, as well as the first time I had ever heard about American Councils. I vividly remember feeling a strange yet curious excitement about the region as I looked for it on a map. Throughout my VSFS service, Facebook was the main platform used to communicate with my students, supervisor and fellow VSFS partner. Therefore, I was gradually able to get a small snippet of Armenian life and culture. But for my curious and adventurous soul it wasn’t enough. During the last few months of our VSFS service my e-intern colleague and I decided to bring our e-internship to life by visiting Yerevan. From there we learned about OPIT, other American Councils opportunities, and so much more. I think it goes without saying that even though I didn’t fully know it yet, a new chapter of my life was in full swing.
AC: What were your impressions of Armenia when you arrived?
Kentina: When I arrived in Yerevan I felt a warming sense of familiarity and calmness, having been in Yerevan less than 60 days prior to my arrival. During my first visit the Velvet Revolution had just reached Yerevan, and though as a military brat I’d found myself in the middle of similar events abroad, this one I of course found to be overwhelming, but I found it to be equally interesting. The city seemed to quite literally be alive. During my first trip to Armenia I felt like I heard the very heartbeat of the Armenian people each and every day and to return within such a short period post-Velvet Revolution it felt as though I was visiting the nation for the first time all over again through a brand-new historical lens. I initially (and still) loved that the city is a mix of old and new architecture and that no matter where you go the history, spirit and perseverance of the Armenian people shines through.
AC: Tell us about your experience in the internship program.
Kentina: I was hosted by the Armenian Association of Social Workers, which allowed me to work and grow with social workers of all ages and backgrounds from several regions across the nation. I also worked on special projects with the Fund for Armenian Relief’s Children Support Center; the only 24/7 crisis facility in the city. Some of my tasks included generating an assessment for all children at the Children's Support Center, and helping with proposals to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Armenian Ministry of Education for increased inclusivity and accommodation for Syrian refugees.
AC: What type of extracurricular activities did you take part in?
Kentina: I was grateful to be a part of a decent sized group of OPIT Armenia interns who all had a knack for adventure. We got together often and traveled when we could during the weekends to historical sites and Marzes (regions). One weekend, we even traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia to meet our OPIT Georgia counterparts we had met during our orientation in Washington, D.C.
AC: What do you believe you got out of this experience?
Kentina: The gift of empowerment! I was raised in a dual-parent military household and my whole life has been instilled with some level of cross-cultural immersion, having lived abroad for so many years in diverse communities. However, OPIT helped me truly feel and see the sheer power, beauty and privilege to both witness and help create the wave that is positive and impactful change, no matter where we find ourselves in the world. Even if I had the knowledge of one hundred different languages, I don’t think I could adequately describe how special and unique of a learning experience it was to, in a way, hit the ground running into a realm of the world I essentially knew nothing about (prior to my experience with American Councils), and to ultimately blossom both professionally and personally. Never before in my life had I been surrounded by such a civically aware and engaged youth community across so many global concerns like human rights, poverty, cross-border conflicts and more. Being surrounded by and growing with this energy certainly created an equally inspiring and empowering momentum to pursue my professional endeavors and to uplift and empower others to do the very same.
AC: What are your plans for the future? Is Armenia a part of those plans?
Kentina: Future plans include finishing my graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, in an effort to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. A major career goal of mine is to utilize my mental health skills within the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, a dream that was greatly strengthened by learning about American Citizen Services within U.S. Embassies during my experience in Armenia. I am equally proud and grateful to say that I’ve very recently begun working within the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C. in Overseas Citizen Services – Outreach Training, specifically in the Crime Victim Assistance realm, which has been a real dream come true! I without a doubt have hopes of returning to Armenia someday as a Peace Corp Volunteer, Foreign Service Officer, and of course to visit my beloved new friends and family. I keep my beginner level Armenian language skills alive and well through regular communication with my friends there as well as through Armenian-English textbooks I stumbled across prior to departing back home, with hopes that I’ll someday be an advanced speaker.
AC: What was the most interesting/special experience you had living in Armenia?
Kentina: The most special experience I had was by far being able to participate in Halidzor Summer School: a summer camp for current social work students and participants of several other Fund for Armenia Relief projects throughout the regions. This was the third year my host organization was able to provide such an impactful and fun opportunity for young leaders of tomorrow across the social service and human rights fields in Armenia. The camp focused on raising young voices in advocacy through themed days such as “Super Hero” day, “Social Change” day, “Legislative” day and more, through which participants were able to work in teams to discuss ongoing issues for at-risk children and families across the nation and understand present solutions through mock government sessions. Though I struggled a bit with language barriers I have never been surrounded with such positive and contagious energy from the participants and am in awe of the paths they have ahead of them as they trail-blaze their way to positive social change.
AC: What was the most difficult experience you had living in Armenia?
Kentina: The most difficult aspect for me was the language barrier with colleagues at my host organization, as well as asserting myself regardless of said barriers when using taxis/public transportation. Often at my internship, and especially during summer camp, I found myself overwhelmed and frankly quite sad when I was unable to participate in conversations during mealtimes and group discussions, or comprehensively listen during student presentations. With transportation, I struggled a few times when opting to choose taxis over buses as a means of transportation due to unwanted attention regarding my nationality/ethnicity in such a confined space. However, through comfort in communicating these aspects to my host family, program staff, and colleagues, I felt more empowered to speak up with the right Armenian phrases when needed, as well as kindly remind/ask that things also be shared in English within my host organization so I could remain as engaged as possible.
AC: What was it like living with your host family?
Kentina: I firstly have to say that the American Councils staff did a truly incredible job of host family placement. Throughout my stay, and even now far after my OPIT experience, I felt as if I seamlessly meshed with my host family. I had a host mom, brother and sister whom to this day I call and message routinely. The sheer opportunity to live with a host family played such a crucial role in the overall internship experience and fostering cross-cultural immersion. My host family allowed for so many beautiful and special memories throughout my experience from sharing/learning cooking secrets with my host mom to baking and shopping with my sister, and even discussing linguistics with my host brother, accompanied by plenty of family walks and excursions throughout and beyond the city. A phrase often tossed around our home was “where have you been all my life?” which still can’t fully illuminate what an incredible bond we shared and an ode to never truly feeling like I was just a summer guest. The thing I love about my host family among many others is that they respected both my space to rest when needed, especially fighting jet lag during my first weeks, and they embraced and encouraged my love of learning from day one. During the first meal I had with my host family, my mom gave me an empty notebook with a giant smile; She simply said "hayareni das" (Armenian lesson) and from that point forward, meals and even snacks always ended with Armenian lessons. Overall, I can’t imagine possibly having had a better host family placement.
AC: What would you suggest to future program participants preparing to live in Armenia?
Kentina: Read about previous participant experiences online and if you can, check out your host organization’s and relevant community member’s social media handle(s). This is a really cool way to somewhat familiarize yourself with your professional and non-professional environment prior to arriving, and a nice way to find out about relevant opportunities or projects you can seek out or be a part of. For example, I knew prior to arriving that my host organization was sponsored by many organizations including the United Nations and USAID, and that it also hosted a yearly summer camp. Because of this I was able to bring extra items/useful learning materials with me from home to utilize at camp with participating students as well as brush up on relevant reading to better understand and eventually help with policy related aspects of the UN and USAID, as sponsors of my host organization. Lastly of course, try to brush up on the local language prior to arriving. Even though it’s not a necessity, I found it to be very helpful at home and at my host organization to know at least a handful or words spoken in every other sentence or so. And above all, prepare and brace yourself for a truly remarkable adventure!
Kentina in Armenia during her OPIT program.
Published by AC Study Abroad staff in July 2020.