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An international business grad turned a passion for social entrepreneurship into a mission for the children of Armenia.

Writing Her Own Story, Teaching for a Whole Country

Larisa Hovannisian ’09 is not living the life she dreamed about, planned or pictured.

And that’s exactly how she wants it.

Instead of sticking to the original narrative she envisioned – a career in fashion merchandising – she followed a fork in the road and began writing a new story for herself. Today, as founder and CEO of the educational leadership organization Teach for Armenia, her mission is helping young people discover their own stories.

“I’m so thankful to St. Norbert for giving me an opportunity to experience what ultimately became my career and passion – social entrepreneurship,” says Hovannisian. The daughter of a Wisconsin “farm boy” and an Armenian mother, Hovannisian graduated from high school in Russia at age 16. “My parents were very worried about me going off to college in the United States by myself,” she explains. “My dad felt safer with St. Norbert since his family was in Green Bay. I thought I would stay only at SNC for a year or so and then transfer somewhere bigger, but I loved it so much I stayed.”

As an international business and language area studies major, Hovannisian worked for Discoveries International, a student-led business that sells goods made around the globe and distributes the profits to charities. She became a leader in the organization, falling in love with the idea of combining business with social impact. “Discoveries International made me really second guess whether this is what I was destined to do,” says Hovannisian of her merchandising career plans.

Evolving priorities
Instead of leaping into a career after graduation, she decided to “buy herself some time” and explore something outside of her comfort zone. She was accepted into the Teach for America program and went to work for two years teaching children with special needs in Phoenix, Ariz. “You end up falling in love with the work, with the kids,” says Hovannisian. “It really does change a lot of priorities you originally had for yourself. It was changing my own story, it was changing the narrative I had set out for myself, it was changing everything for me. It was a gradual process, but after I was almost done with my two years I decided I wanted to continue working in this sphere.”

Hovannisian knew this type of program would be a huge benefit to the children and youth of Armenia. She contacted Teach for All, the international network that advises Teach for America and similar programs across the globe, for advice and resources. She moved to Armenia in 2013, joining her mother and sister, and worked hard to make connections, raise funds, build a team and get the organization off the ground. It was no small feat, she says, “especially in a country like Armenia where the sense of possibility around people doing unconventional things and being successful is very rare.” She credits the growth mindset instilled at St. Norbert College with giving her the tenacity to reach for her dream. “I was never told I couldn’t do something,” she says. “I feel like there was more conversation about ‘how can you get this done’ instead of ‘how could this fail.’ ”

Today, thanks to Hovannisian’s vision and determination, 102 fellows, or teachers, are serving more than 11,000 students across Armenia. She wants the young people impacted by Teach for Armenia to understand they have the power to narrate their life stories. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that life is a learning journey,” she says. “Change course and create learning opportunities for yourself.”

Life lessons
Hovannisian has words of wisdom for today’s new grads. She says: “I think it’s so important for young people who aren’t sure what they want to do to give themselves the time to figure out what that is. Give yourself an opportunity to do something that’s going to put you outside of your comfort zone. If people choose to give themselves that opportunity early on, my guess is that they won’t have an existential crisis later on mid-career.

“I think most people want to live a life of purpose. Very often, we don’t get to understand what that is unless we’re going through a transformational life experience. That space between where you are and your comfort zone is where real magic can happen. The worst thing that can happen is people get stuck in their routines.

“The best way you can find your own story is by becoming a teacher, preferably in a community different from yours. By teaching others, you are able to change the world and change yourself.”

April 29, 2019