Originally from Armenia, Lilit Grigoryan is currently a junior at Brown University – one of the top private Ivy League research universities in the US – where she received a scholarship to study Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (B.Sc.). She talked to Diasporina about her decision to study in the U.S., American education, and her adjustment to the foreign culture.
Why did you pick the U.S to pursue your education in?
As I was growing up and learning more about science, I always dreamed of studying in the U.S. – the place of the greatest scientific advancements and the best educational institutions. I aspired to become one of the scientists that contribute to discovering the secrets of Nature and to using my knowledge as a tool to make the world a better place.
How did you learn about Brown University?
I was awarded a Scholarship to study at an international high school in the UK (UWC Atlantic College) and a Brown Admissions officer once visited our school. I remember he told us a story about how he signed up for a class for which he was the only student. When he realized he was the only one in the class he thought the course would be cancelled, but the professor urged him to stay, and together with the professor they studied the material for an entire semester. After hearing that story Brown seemed like a great place to be, welcoming of all academic and extracurricular interests and providing an excellent learning environment to improve and reach the best of your potential.
What admission tests did you take and how did you prepare for your tests?
As most students who apply to American colleges, I took the SATs (General test, as well as the Chemistry and MathII subject tests). I studied for the tests on my own, and spent about 3 weeks studying for each.
What were your first thoughts about America on the way from a U.S. airport where you first landed?
I remember when I first got to Brown, and I was greeted by a group of students with the keys to my dorm and the necessary “freshmen packets” for orientation week. It was a very exciting experience, people were very warm and kind, very welcoming and somehow (in a very good way) blind to cultural differences. They see a person, rather than a country or a culture or an accent, which is something I really appreciate about the American people. It also seemed a little busier than usual, like everyone was running around with a cup of coffee, trying to make it to work (and people drink A LOT of coffee here too).
What is the most unique thing you appreciate about American education and America as a country?
I think that the US education system, in comparison to the European one for instance, gives you a lot of freedom in terms of the specific courses you study during each semester. There are many many options, and you can pick any of the over 10,000 classes every semester! I think this flexibility allows you to not only explore subjects of your profession, but also expand your horizons in other fields. Along with Biochemistry, I took a few psychology courses, as well as French language courses and Computer Science classes all of which have helped me become a more well-rounded individual. I believe that university education is not just about courses, but also the development of one’s personality, and the US system easily allows you to do so with a great abundance of extracurricular activities that it offers.
Tell us the funniest culture shock experience you’ve had?
I don’t actually remember having a culture shock in the US. I already came from an international high school and I had sort of seen representatives of many different nationalities, so the U.S. was just another destination for me. One thing that still keeps happening to me after all these years is that I take very Armenian expressions and directly translate them into English. I do not do it on purpose of course, but it is completely worth seeing the confused faces around me when I say “Wow, they’ve put their father’s price on this dress”.
What was the most difficult adjustment for you?
I think one huge difference between America and Armenia is the extent of political correctness in day-to-day conversations. When at home, I have never had to think twice before saying anything, while here it is more difficult. Since it is such a diverse country, with people of multiple cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, one little naïve word might become offensive. I adjusted to that pretty quickly though, and I don’t mind having to be careful when I speak at all, it’s just that sometimes I miss the very straight-forward interaction that people have with one another at home.
What is the biggest difference between this country and your home country?
I think one big difference is that everyone is given an opportunity in the U.S. It is possible to start with nothing and work hard and build your way up to the top. In Armenia, it is not that easy. Since I have pretty much spent my entire time here in an educational institution, I can only compare this to my home country, and I think that the education here is much more personalized, and every person is given a voice, which they will always stand up for. People here have a very strong appreciation for individual freedom and every person is given a chance to fight, and not just silenced half-way through their sentence. I think there are a lot of other differences between the two countries, but those would probably be the main ones.
What do your peers find interesting about your own Armenian culture?
A lot of my friends are in love with Armenian food. I always bring a box of homemade Bakhlava from Armenia and somehow I never get to eat one because my friends manage to steal it all. Armenian food is a treasure, no wonder why people like it so much! A friend of mine also really likes Armenian idioms: once we spent an entire evening translating Armenian idioms into English and laughing at how awkward they sound in English. Another friend of mine that is very interested in architecture, really likes the architecture of Armenian churches, since they are so unique and so mesmerizing. I have also taught a British friend of mine a few letters of the Armenian alphabet, and he really enjoyed learning it (to this day, he remembers most of the letters).
What would you recommend people who want to study in America but are too afraid to move here?
I think that moving to a different country is definitely a very big step in your life. Every time I sit on a plane, I have to close a chapter of my life at that particular location, and open a new one for where I land. When I first decided to go abroad, I thought my main problems would be speaking English, or facing difficulties in my courses, but those ended up being the smallest of my actual challenges. The real one was leaving home and the family I had always lived with and starting a completely new life somewhere else. It is a journey difficult at times, but I honestly believe that the cause is so much greater than the hardships.
Having met people from everywhere around the world, having shared my beliefs with others is what has made me who I am today. When I was a little girl, I watched the animated cartoon Pocahontas and I always think of the time where she had to choose between two rivers –one rocky and dangerous, and one calm and open water. She chose the rocky one and ended up getting to where she needed much faster and safer. When I chose to leave my family and live here, I realized that it was the more difficult and “rocky” option for me, but I believe that the education I received in return was so enlightening that I would have missed out a lot, had I chosen to stay. I met excellent scientists, incredibly supportive professors, talented students from all around the world, and most importantly, I learned to turn wherever I land into my new home.
To the people thinking about studying abroad: do it! Don’t let fear of short-term difficulties scare you away. If I could conquer those rocks, so can you, and one day you will look back and smile at the good decision you made.