USC, UCLA Armenian Students’ Associations hold joint vigil

Students came together in Westwood to recognize the more than 200 lives lost in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

a student holds an armenian flag
USC and UCLA students stood in front of Royce Hall in Westwood to listen to speeches, music and poetry reflecting on the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Victoria Lee / Daily Trojan)

Silence hung in the air as students from both USC and UCLA gathered Wednesday evening outside Royce Hall at UCLA. The vigil, held jointly by the Armenian Students’ Associations of USC and UCLA, recognized the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and provided a space for students to reflect on recent events. Candles, roses and prayers marked the event — and yet, the tone was not one of mourning, but rather of acknowledgement and solidarity. 

The conflict outlasted five U.S. presidents, claimed the lives of tens of thousands on both sides and spanned more than three decades, surpassing political and geophysical boundaries. Last week, the Republic of Artsakh, a self-declared state in internationally-recognized Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, collapsed. Early Thursday morning, the separatist government of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh announced it would dissolve itself by January 2024. To its ethnic Armenian population, this signaled the “end of an era,” as a mass exodus to Armenia began, spurred by historically-backed fears of ethnic cleansing, a sentiment echoed by Armenian government officials.

“Our main hope is to have the USC administration come out with a statement to acknowledge what the Armenian students have been through,” said Talia Wansikehian, a senior majoring in public policy and president of USC ASA. “We’re speaking out [to] gain some traction and gain some voice just so we can feel like our voices are heard, and that as we lose a part of our history, we can still create our history, and still remain strong and not forgotten.”

USC ASA previously held a vigil last September on the University Park Campus.  

“This was something that we hoped we wouldn’t have to do, of course, because vigils are usually done in mourning,” said George Gemayel, professional chair of USC ASA and a senior majoring in physics.

The vigil follows a crisis briefing held last Wednesday in collaboration with the Global Policy Institute at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a listening session held in collaboration with UCLA on Monday. On Tuesday night, ASA members spoke at the Undergraduate Student Government meeting in support of SR 143-11, a resolution demanding the University speak out on the situation. 

“We’re trying to provide our own community within our club, but then what we’re trying to accomplish with the senate resolution is to get some recognition on campus and get our voice out,” Wansikehian said.

a student lights a candle
Talia Wansikehian, president of the USC Armenian Students’ Association and a senior majoring in public policy, spoke with the Daily Trojan about the importance of creating a community and balancing the toll of war and students’ on-campus obligations. (Victoria Lee / Daily Trojan)

During the vigil, which included prayer, poetry and singing, students from both schools reflected on the tragedy and their collective Armenian identity. 

After introductions by the presidents of the USC and UCLA ASAs, the political chair of the UCLA chapter explained the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Lilit Keshishyan, a professor of writing at USC and project director for the University’s Institute of Armenian Studies, reflected on her work archiving the lives of Armenians who live in California. She described speaking to individuals who had to leave their homelands for reasons of genocide, war, persecution and economic hardship. 

“It’s devastating to know that there is now another generation who is going to have to tell these stories,” Keshishyan said.

In her speech, Lusin Yengibaryan, a senior majoring in psychobiology at UCLA and internal vice president of UCLA ASA, spoke on her recent return from Armenia, where she visited family, as well as her feelings of not deserving to grieve as a member of the diaspora.

“Understand that we have just as much to grieve as any other Armenian,” Yengibaryan said. “I wanted tonight to be similar to visiting a loved one at a cemetery — not necessarily sad or upsetting, but relieving.”

Following the formal speaker lineup, the vigil opened up to community members who wished to speak about their own experiences. Those who spoke mentioned their first experiences in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, gratitude for being able to express their Armenian identity, and their fears of further violence in their region. 

The ASA groups held a fundraiser immediately after the vigil, at which they provided roses and candles for participants to light and place around a cross that had been formed on the ground. Participants were encouraged to donate any amount they felt comfortable with to the national Armenian Students’ Association.

“These stories will not go untold,”  said Lynette Andreasyan, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience at UCLA, who attended Wednesday’s vigil, reflecting on the experience of youth in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. “It’s very important to know that these Armenian youth are so intelligent and so driven, and it’s really inspiring to hear, but also very heartbreaking to think that another generation of Armenian youth could be lost.” 

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 1:39 p.m. Thursday to reflect Nagorno-Karabakh’s announcement that it will dissolve after admitting defeat by Azerbaijan.

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