Club “succeeds to serve” the LA community amid the pandemic

A Zoom meeting with 11 people holding up peace signs is displayed on a computer screen. The meeting was for a debate with the USC Hybrid High School debate team and was hosted by the Philologos Society
The Philologos Society hosted a debate with the USC Hybrid High School debate team in the fall of 2020, via Zoom. The event was moderated by sophomore Lillian Goodwin. (Photo courtesy of Richard Petrosyan)

Two mottos guide the work of the Philologos Society, an organization founded by Richard Petrosyan in 2019: “Live a century and learn a century” and “succeed to serve.” Since its start, the organization, which aims to promote the intellectual growth of its members while serving the Los Angeles area, has been doing just that.  

The Philologos Society got its name from the Ancient Greek word philos meaning friend/love and logos meaning study/word/argument. Petrosyan, a junior majoring in neuroscience, said he wanted the club to have a meaningful name that represented the society’s mission to create a community with a love for expanding their intellectual knowledge and interests by sharing in a safe environment. 

The Philologos Society offers an academic branch and humanitarian branch — each corresponding with the “succeed” and “serve” aspects of the motto, respectively, Petrosyan said. In a year and a half, the organization has amassed 45 members who work to have important discussions with one another while serving the greater L.A. community, through services like meal delivery to those in need and providing feedback to high school and middle school debate teams, even amid the pandemic. 

“If you are a machine that knows everything, that succeeds to the best capacity that a human could possibly do, and if you’re alone on Earth, what’s the purpose?” Petrosyan said. “You’re not going to realize yourself, you’re not going to self actualize or make an impact if you’re not doing it for society ultimately. So that was the rationale behind succeeding to serve all the while learning while living your entire life.”

In the summer of 2020, Petrosyan reached out to Margaret Talai, operations coordinator at Meals on Wheels, to form a partnership. Meals on Wheels is an organization that delivers meals and checks in on elderly people and people with disabilities. Petrosyan had previously volunteered for Meals on Wheels in 2015 after moving to L.A. from France.

Talai said she was pleased about partnering with the Philologos Society and coordinating a food delivery schedule with Petrosyan that involved shift rotations to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and protect the Meals on Wheels staff, volunteers and clients amid the pandemic. Due to coronavirus restrictions, many of the Meals on Wheels clients have been cut off from the outside world, she said. As a result, the organization implemented a phone reassurance policy in which volunteers — many of whom were Philologos Society members volunteering from home — would call clients and talk to them in order to check up on them and provide them with social interaction. 

“When you [give back] you feel better about yourself and you’re giving more to someone who needs it,” Talai said. “Feeding people who are homebound, to make sure they see somebody on a regular basis, get a ‘’Hello, hi, how are you?’’ checking up on them on a regular basis — that’s what it’s all about.” 

The Philologos Society has also partnered with the L.A. Metropolitan Debate League, a nonprofit that teaches public speaking to underprivileged high school and middle school students. The Philologos Society helps by judging monthly debate tournaments. Society members connect with LAMDL debate teams on the online tournament platform Tabroom and provide feedback for the students’ next debates in the higher leagues on “ballots” that allow the members to point grade the debaters.

“We try to provide [the feedback] so that they can be better debaters, better public speakers, more confident speakers — that they become more eloquent, don’t use parasitic words, create and structure their arguments better,” Petrosyan said. “These are all the types of details that we try to instill, to the best of our capacity, all the while remaining as neutral as possible — but unfortunately you have to choose a winner in the end.” 

The Philologos Society also formed a partnership with USC Hybrid High School and Clinton Middle School. After conducting a survey at the schools to discover what topics interest the students, a project leader from the Philologos Society is elected to give the students a lesson in the topic of choice. The Society aims to expose students to topics that are generally not discussed in school to broaden their knowledge, through Zoom meetings twice a month. 

Sean Silva, a junior majoring in history and archaeology, is vice president of the organization. Silva is responsible for coordinating meetings, student presentation schedules and guest speakers. He continues to do reassurance calls for Meals on Wheels from his hometown of Washington DC.

“What attracts people is just a sense of connection,” Silva said. “We love sharing knowledge and we love learning from each other and a lot of what you’re doing both in the meeting activities and the volunteering activities is just sharing things with people, talking to people. I think that’s the big attraction, it’s just an open place to talk about big issues in philosophy, archaeology, medicine, whatever field you’re interested in, it’s a great place to meet people and to have an amazing conversation.”

Due to the pandemic restrictions, most Philologos Societies programs take place over Zoom. Silva said going online made coordinating more practical for him since he no longer has to arrange transportation. 

Silva coordinates the internal symposium where, similarly to the high school presentations, members present a topic of their choice to other society members. The presenter raises an issue and exposes the members to a field outside of their majors that they can learn and then debate about. He also coordinates guest speakers from different departments around campus offering the students an opportunity to network and take the guest speakers’ college classes.

The Philologos Society also offers documentary screenings chosen by a society member presenter, now in an online setting due to coronavirus restrictions. The presenter then leads the discussion about the documentary and comes up with motivational questions so the group can debate the topic at hand. The documentary must put forward an issue or controversy that members can voice their opinions and argue for or against. 

The Philologos Society recently created an online publication called “The Philologos Times” where members publish two types of content, analytical articles and scientific articles. The club also created a YouTube channel called Philologos Society at USC designed to make small educational miniseries. The society also conducts a high school writing contest encouraging high schoolers to submit 500 word moral or messaged-based short stories and get publication credit from a university intellectual society. 

Lillian Goodwin, a sophomore majoring in journalism, is in charge of communications at the Philologos Society. She reaches out to professors, advisors and department heads from different schools within the University to bring diverse perspectives into the club and cultivate conversations where members can work to understand each other’s different opinions. Petrosyan said freedom of speech is central to the Philologos Society’s discussions. 

“One of the big things about this society is that it’s not as academic and austere as it sounds,” Goodwin said. “We’re really trying to be inclusive and accepting of everyone and cultivate intellectualism obviously but also ensure that nobody feels like they don’t have what it takes to participate … we really want to make sure everyone belongs.”

Note: Lillian Goodwin is a staff writer for the Daily Trojan.