On December 7, 1988 an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale rolled through the former Soviet Republic of Armenia, killing 25,000 people and leaving another 500,000 homeless. The human tragedy and economic devastation shocked the world and opened the Republic to unprecedented international humanitarian and technical assistance.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, many Western specialists in the field of earthquake engineering visited Armenia and had the opportunity to interact with their Armenian counterparts. It was during one such meeting in 1989 that the idea of an American style technical university in Armenia was proposed by Yuri Sarkissian, then rector of the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute, to Armen Der Kiureghian, Professor of Civil Engineering of the University of California at Berkeley, as a way to establish a new foundation for education and training in Armenia.
The idea soon evolved into the specific goal of founding a graduate university based on the American model. What followed was a period of steadfast effort led by two earthquake engineering professors, Mihran Agbabian of the University of Southern California and Armen Der Kiureghian of the University of California at Berkeley. The vision of an American graduate university in Armenia soon became a goal to which other academics in America and Armenia lent their support. The late Professor Stepan Karamardian, formerly Dean of the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Riverside, soon joined the Agbabian and Der Kiureghian team early on. The team then approached the Armenian government and several organizations seeking support for the achievement of the stated goal.
The American University of Armenia became a reality thanks to the steadfast support of the Armenian and United States governments and two major institutions in the United States: the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the University of California (UC). From the very beginning, the government of Armenia and specifically the Ministry of Higher Education and Sciences (now the Ministry of Education and Science) provided logistical and financial support for the establishment of the University. Despite the significant political and economic changes occurring in Armenia during the period from 1989 to 1991, the Ministry delivered its unwavering assistance facilitating steps and removing hurdles. The United States government has generously supported the University through the granting of a precedent setting Congressional allocation through USAID as an endowment for AUA, and multiple annual grants through USAID’s office of American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA).
AGBU agreed early on to underwrite a major share of the operational funding necessary to launch the University. From the outset, AUA also benefited from a vital working relationship with the University of California. When approached for its technical assistance, David P. Gardener, then President of the University of California, responded by appointing a task force, chaired by then Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs William R. Frazer, to explore the feasibility of UC’s participation in this undertaking. The task force visited Armenia in July 1990. A year later, the Regents of the University of California unanimously agreed to an affiliation with the University. Based on this affiliation, UC lends valuable technical support and educational experience in the growth of the American University of Armenia, collaborating in the preparation of a cadre of faculty and participating in the development of a program of exchange and cooperation.
On September 21, 1991 Armenia declared its independence. On the same day, AUA began instruction with 101 students enrolled. In a phenomenally short time, the vision had become a reality. Today, the American University of Armenia (AUA) operates as an independent, private, non-profit institution of higher education in Armenia.
AUA’s academic programs provide a graduate education and, starting in Fall 2013, an undergraduate education. Parallel to its academic programs, AUA has established the Engineering Research Center, the Turpanjian Center for Policy Analysis, the Acopian Center for the Environment, the Center for Health Services Research and Development, the Center for Research in Applied Linguistics, the Center for Business Research and Development, and the Legal Resource Center, in order to promote research in conjunction with its teaching programs. As a public service to the community, AUA also provides a business development program through the Turpanjian Rural Development Program and courses through AUA Extension. AUA faculty members are invited to promote learning and knowledge by teaching and conducting research. The exchange between faculty members and students is based on intellectual openness. Students are encouraged to formulate, critically and creatively, their individual paths of understanding and to pursue diversity in knowledge.
By providing teaching, research and public service, AUA seeks to serve Armenia and the region and to provide a positive model in the transition to a market economy and democratic style of government. The University aims to prepare graduates who will play a constructive role in the social and economic development of Armenia and the region. The use of English as the language of instruction is intended to facilitate communication between graduates of AUA and their colleagues throughout the world and to attract an international faculty cadre and student body.