YEREVAN—Every remarkable achievement starts with an idea. The idea for the American University of Armenia was born in the winter of 1989, a few months after the devastating Spitak earthquake. After this tragedy, Dr. Armen Der Kiureghian of the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Yuri Sargsyan, then Rector of the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute in Armenia, began a conversation.
Their discussion eventually led to a proposal by Dr. Der Kiureghian and Dr. Mihran Agbabian of the University of Southern California to establish a western-style university in Armenia. Dr. Stepan Karamardian, the Dean of Business at UC Riverside, soon joined the team. With a partnership with the University of California and a funding commitment by Louise Manoogian Simone, then President of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, AUA was established.
“An interesting fact about AUA is that it is as old as the Republic of Armenia, as it opened its doors on September 21, 1991, the same day Armenia declared independence from the former Soviet Union,” remarked President Dr. Der Kiureghian. Twenty-eight years later, AUA’s co-founder who has been serving as president for the past five years, is passing the baton. Dr. Der Kiureghian held a variety of positions at AUA, including Founding Dean of the College of Engineering and Interim Provost.
At the time of its founding, the vision was to create a university that would act as a bridge between Armenia and the United States, bringing in American-style education—rooted in evidence-based inquiry, critical thinking, liberal arts, and complemented with interactive and experiential learning. When asked whether he feels that vision has been achieved, Dr. Der Kiureghian affirmed his belief that the University has accomplished much more than its initial aspirations.
“We started the University at a very difficult time in Armenia. There were the lingering effects of the earthquake, an ongoing war, and severe shortages of basic necessities, but we persevered. Today, many of our graduates hold government positions all the way from ministers to regional governors. They are instructors and professors teaching in various universities, including AUA,” he stated.
“There are several successful startups, like PicsArt and Zangi, that are founded by our graduates. They work in banking, businesses, NGOs, government agencies, and educational institutions in Armenia and elsewhere. We have an increasing number of supporters and generous philanthropist, so in many ways, the dream has been realized. The question now is how we grow the University so it can have even greater impact in Armenia,” he continued.
That is the question that the incoming President, Dr. Karin Markides, also has on her mind. AUA spoke to Dr. Markides, in Glendale, regarding her vision for the University. Having gone through a thorough recruiting process, she was one of the four finalists from a pool of 60 candidates who applied for the position.
“I’m very much about how we work to make a lasting impact in a sustainable and collaborative way, by first building trust among key stakeholders and then incentivizing an evolutionary process. Through my previous work as President of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, one of the main things we accomplished was breaking down silos by creating cross-collaboration among strong departments, excellent faculty, talented students, and dedicated external collaborators, creating open environments where complex challenges could be handled and innovation could happen. This is a method I believe that all institutions, whether governmental, business or academic, would benefit from,” she said.
With an impressive resume that includes lecturing at Stanford University as a guest professor, Dr. Markides completed her doctorate at Stockholm University in 1984, after which she started her research career at Brigham Young University in Utah as a postdoctoral fellow, then as a research assistant and associate director.
In May 1990, she returned to Sweden as a Chair Professor and Dean of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Uppsala University. Fourteen years later, in May 2004, she became Vice Director General of Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency. Subsequently, Dr. Markides was selected as President of Chalmers University of Technology and, since 2015, she serves as the Chair of the Scientific Council for Sustainable Development under the Swedish government.
When asked what attracted her to the President’s role at AUA, her face lit up as she told about her mother-in-law who was raised in Smyrna among a multi-ethnic population, including Armenians. “Her insight that only inclusion can heal an experience makes her stories stay with me every day,” she related.
Dr. Markides’s fascination with Armenia grew deeper as she talked about its unique geopolitical location. “Armenia’s position—the intersection where East meets West—can be an asset if the bright brains from neighboring countries become increasingly attracted to Armenia as a nexus where cultures and minds meet. I think these meeting places can attract many people, whether from Europe, Russia, China, and elsewhere for planned and unplanned interactions and true impact,” she explained.
As far as her vision for AUA and its role in Armenia, Dr. Markides remarked that she would like to see AUA play an even larger role in the transformation of the country, inviting higher education, private and public sectors to enable transformative impact in areas of high potential and emerging challenges.
In these sectors, AUA would develop people’s skills for transformative co-creation and connect the urban and rural areas of the country, also attracting greater attention from the international community. Her experience working with innovation and technologies is something she plans to bring to AUA.
Every region has cultural and societal roadblocks, she continued, and “it’s important to be inclusive, and to make sure everyone is at the table. They need to see and understand one another and develop trust in their diverse abilities for solving problems in a complex system that could lead to making transformative impact. This systems thinking approach supports creativity and inclusion to be more powerful.” Dr. Markides also acknowledges that there is still much for her to learn about Armenia, its challenges and opportunities, and how AUA can play a strategic role in building the future.
As Dr. Der Kiureghian passes the baton after five years as President of AUA, he wishes Dr. Markides the best and says she has the right standing, credentials, and experience to lead a growing university.
“I feel very honored and privileged to have served as President in the last five years and happy with our accomplishments, watching the University grow threefold after adding undergraduate programs, and I’ve really enjoyed witnessing the enthusiasm among our students and seeing how learning is happening. I am grateful to my colleagues, faculty, and executive team who have made this possible,” he said.
Dr. Der Kiureghian will continue to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees of AUA, and he looks forward to writing two textbooks on engineering and spending more time with his family.
Founded in 1991, the American University of Armenia (AUA) is a private, independent university located in Yerevan, Armenia, and affiliated with the University of California. AUA provides a global education in Armenia and the region, offering high-quality graduate and undergraduate studies, encouraging civic engagement, and promoting public service and democratic values.