Giving to keep a language alive

Giving to keep a language alive

 Office of the Dean November 4, 2019

UCI alumnus funds second-year Western Armenian course

By Valerie Elwell

Noubar K. Ouzounian, M.D. ’85 knew his professional path was to become a doctor when he was just thirteen years old. In 1968, in a community hospital in the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, Ouzounian witnessed his father die of a gallbladder infection that could have been prevented with a proper diagnosis, a course of antibiotics and more proactive management of his care.

“When that happened, I said to myself that there has got to be a better way to treat people—with more scientific knowledge and more compassion,” Ouzounian says.

Intent on this goal, Ouzounian studied hard and completed medical school at the American University of Beirut in 1980, during the height of the Lebanese Civil War. He decided to pursue a medical internship in the United States and was admitted as a legal resident. He was applying to various Southern California residency programs when he got a call back from UCI’s School of Medicine saying that they had an opening for a one-year internship, and he was welcome to interview.

“It was a Wednesday. I came down from Pasadena to UC Irvine. They were interviewing each applicant for about 10-15 minutes. I got two minutes and then they said ‘thank you very much.’ So, I thought I wouldn’t get it. The next day, I get the phone call—you're accepted and come sign the papers. So, on Friday, I arrived. It was one of my happiest days ever,” he says.

He discovered he liked the medical specialty otolaryngology [commonly known as Ears, Nose and Throat or ENT] and decided to apply for that residency. While most applicants would have to wait a year before starting, Ouzounian was able to start a month later due to an unexpected opening. He then became one of the first three residents to train at Kaiser Permanente in 1984 through a cooperative program between UCI and the hospital.

“That program is now a regular rotation for the UCI otolaryngology residents. They spend six months with us at Kaiser. I’m now one of 15 doctors who train them, and about half of us are UCI graduates,” he says.

Ouzounian has been practicing at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County since 1985. He’s a board certified otolaryngologist with a practice primarily concentrated on thyroid and ear surgeries. To date, he’s trained more than 50 physician residents from UCI and was the recipient of UC Irvine’s Outstanding Volunteer Clinical Faculty award in 1997. 

While the School of Medicine forms one of Ouzounian’s deepest connections to UCI, there’s more to his UCI story.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Ouzounian is ethnically Armenian. Both sides of his family were displaced during the Armenian Genocide. His father’s family ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon; his mother’s settled in Syria.

Like many refugee families, Ouzounian’s found it painful to discuss their memories of the genocide. What Ouzounian does know is that his maternal great-grandfather was shot dead in front of his grandfather. Later, his grandfather and his sisters and mother were able to escape disguised as Kurds.

For this reason, Ouzounian is invested in preserving the heritage and language of his ancestors. He has found that UCI, with its vibrant Armenian Studies Program, is playing a vital role in this preservation and is thus a worthy recipient of his support.

In 2017, at the Armenian church in Costa Mesa, Ouzounian attended a lecture given by Houri Berberian, professor of history and the Meghrouni Family Presidential Chair in Armenian Studies at UCI.

“She was just starting the Armenian Studies Program and she spoke about her vision to make it a dynamic center for the study of Armenian history and language. That’s what moved me to initially donate to the program,” he says.

In 2018, Berberian, with the help of many Armenian community members, launched a language series in Western Armenian.

This is important because the majority of Armenians were divided between the Russian and Ottoman empires in the 19th century. Two vernacular Armenian languages—Eastern and Western—developed independently of each other. UNESCO declared Western Armenian an endangered language in 2010, mainly because almost all those speaking it are either refugees or descendants of survivors of the genocide.

“This is the language that, in a sense, the genocide tried to eliminate by eliminating its speakers. So, it’s crucial historically for the descendants of Western Armenian speakers to be able to pass down the language,” Berberian says.

Even the most ardent supporters of Western Armenian could not anticipate that the first-year language course offered at UCI would quickly reach maximum enrollment. Its popularity spurred the School of Humanities to seek funding for the 2019-20 academic year to secure the course for a second-year. It was Ouzounian who stepped in, making a generous donation to ensure it continued.

“Let's face it. If you're an Armenian living in Argentina, in France, in the U.S., your exposure to the Armenian language, especially books or poetry is limited; you are mostly reading and speaking the language of that country. So, it's important to have programs for those who want to study the literature and develop their knowledge of the language. That’s why I'm interested in supporting this endangered language program,” he says.

As director of the UCI Armenian Studies Program, Berberian’s next goal is to preserve the teaching of Armenian language at UCI in perpetuity by establishing an endowment.

“The people in the community need to know where to give. I’m sure they want to help but sometimes it’s hard to trust where your donation goes and what it serves. I want my fellow Armenians to know about the program, to trust that their donations will go towards valuable research and continuing our language and heritage,” Ouzounian says.

Donors like Noubar K. Ouzounian play a vital role in ensuring the UCI School of Humanities' brilliant future. Launched in 2016 with support from the Orange County community, the UCI Armenian Studies Program provides a range of academic offerings and engagement opportunities focused on Armenia and the Armenian diaspora to both the UCI community and Orange County community. To support Armenian Studies Program scholars and events that matter, consider making a gift today.