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Armine Kalbakian

Columbia University
Mailman School of Public Health
Masters in Public Health, Sociomedical Sciences Department
Huys Scholar 2022

Headshot of Huys Scholar Armine Kalbakian

I was born in Los Angeles, the product of three generations of diasporan displacement. I was raised in a strong Armenian community and inevitably grew up with an incessant longing to return to my homeland. Every decision I made regarding my academic and professional career was therefore contingent on its future added value for Armenia and the Armenian nation.

As an undergraduate student at Cornell University, I studied anthropology and archaeology with minors in Near Eastern studies, business, and global health. I aimed to study the past through material remains and intangible heritage to better understand the present. I conducted comparative analyses on the Armenian diaspora and other diasporan communities. I learned of the importance of not only preserving heritage for posterity but also of cultivating culture for national growth. Through my studies, I was reminded of the benefits of community: a sense of identity, belonging, safety, support, and purpose. It grew apparent to me that cultural identity and community were key drivers of health and well-being.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Artsakh War, I experienced a slight shift in my academic plans. I concluded that Armenia possessed more existential needs, notably those of national security and public health. As a result, I decided to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) and was eventually accepted to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Through my MPH in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia, I hope to support the Armenian nation in the following areas:

Immigrant Health and Social Services

This past year, I continued my work in the Armenian community as a case manager for Armenian Relief Society Social Services in Glendale, California. There, I had the opportunity to work with low-income Armenians and other immigrant and refugee groups to assist them in social integration. I linked clients to health care, affordable housing, healthy food, transportation, employment, and other community resources. Through this year-long experience, I grew familiar with the health and psychosocial needs of our community members, particularly those of seniors and disabled individuals. Many of our elders struggle with depression and social isolation. Through my graduate program, I will gain the skills to plan, implement, and monitor community-based interventions and manage non-profit, community-based organizations to better serve these populations and their unique needs. The interdisciplinary nature of my graduate department, at the crossroads of anthropology and health, will further grant me the knowledge and tools to examine the socio-economic and cultural causes of health disparities. I will advocate for policies that create more open, green, and cultural spaces, especially in low-income neighborhoods where these are lacking. In addition, I will fight for better public transportation and pedestrian-friendly streets to promote the socialization of seniors and their families. 

Primary Health Care in Armenia

Since March, I have been volunteering at the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Armenia through the Birthright Armenia program. This experience has allowed me to work closely with government officials, health care professionals, and other stakeholders. I am primarily involved with a task force on strengthening primary health care (PHC) in Armenia. It is imperative that Armenia moves towards a primary health care model to attain universal health coverage and promote positive health outcomes. This approach will curb non-communicable diseases instead of merely treating their symptoms. According to a 2019 WHO report, 6.5% of Armenia’s GDP was spent on treating non-communicable diseases. Therefore, strengthening PHC will not only prove more cost-effective for the country but will also improve the quality of health services. This will streamline communication between primary health care providers, specialists, social workers, pharmacists, and mental health professionals to foster integrated health services with a patient-centered, holistic health approach. I believe this model will also pave the way for improved mental health services.

Through a Health and Human Rights certificate, I will conduct my MPH fieldwork and thesis on the effects of war and conflict on displaced families from the Republic of Artsakh. Through this research, I will draw attention to the ongoing nature of war through its lasting effect on population health. My research will underscore the humanitarian aspect of conflict and its impacts on mental health. In the long term, I will devote myself to increasing access to and improving the quality of mental health services for Armenian citizens. 

Reproductive Health in Armenia

Sexual assault is a dire issue in Armenia. It is often overlooked as most cases of sexual violence are underreported or dismissed. This is primarily the byproduct of stigma and victim blaming that require a gradual cultural shift through education. My more immediate goal is to create resources to empower sexual assault survivors. I envision a more streamlined process that connects survivors to mental health and legal professionals upon reporting to the police and maintains victim anonymity. Furthermore, STI screenings, post-exposure prophylaxis, and sexual assault forensic examinations should be more widely available, especially in regions outside Yerevan. 

Higher Education for First-Generation Students

While at Cornell, I served on the executive board of the First-Generation Student Union to support first-generation, low-income college students like myself. I will continue to connect with this community through student organizations at Columbia. I will also use my experiences to empower young adults and college students to pursue their dreams, overcome imposter syndrome, attain higher education, and improve their quality of life. I have experience in mentoring and career counseling as an employment specialist at the Armenian Relief Society and as a mentor in the ARS Refugee Youth Mentoring Program. As a product of Armenian schools, I will work closely with Armenian students to overcome the added challenges of being first-generation Americans. 

Every step I have taken and every step I will take is in the direction of our homeland. Through the Huys Foundation, I hope to inspire others and build a network of peers who will do the same.

I am aware that Huys Foundation is granting the Huys Scholarship to me with the anticipation of my good faith pursuit and implementation of the projects and undertakings described in this letter, to which I hereby commit.