Isabelle Jung/Sun Contributor

March 13, 2023

MKRTCHYAN | I Left the International Student Union E-Board. Here’s Why.

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In one of my previous columns I talked about being an international student at Cornell and all the small inconveniences that it could bring along. Now, I would like to address the big problems. Namely, I would like to talk about my experience as the Vice President of Publicity at the International Students Union and why I decided to step down from my position in that organization. 

I think it is important to reflect on why I joined the club in the first place. Back in my freshman fall semester, I was looking for a community that would accept, understand and share the experience of being an international student. Not only did I want to find a family, but I wanted to make a change and create a more relevant, diverse and inclusive place for international students. After my first year I decided to run for the vice president of publicity. Those around me knew why I ran for this position: it is the voice of the club.

Unlike many other international students, I am low-income in the U.S. and attend Cornell on a full ride scholarship. Along with the very unique region that I am coming from, this puts me in a very special position when I am different from most. Sounds good for the purposes of diversity and inclusion, doesn’t it?

During my time in the ISU, I insisted on sponsoring functional team socials, having some sort of free merch and not increasing the social dues. I empathized with those who couldn’t afford those add-ons. I was so excited when we passed some of my suggestions that would benefit low-income members of the community. However, they didn’t reimburse me when I followed our decision, after the fact. Even after we decided to fund the functional team socials, some of my vice president colleagues still made their members pay for themselves. Unless those who experience the financial hardships spoke up, nothing would have changed — this is why having diversity and inclusion within the e-board first is so important.

One thing that I praised about the club were the international fundraisers where we would fundraise for an important cause globally. Previously, we organized an international fundraiser for Ukraine and we even organized a protest to raise awareness. Last year, it just so happened that my country was also experiencing an invasion by Azerbaijan. Hence, as everyone was looking for a cause to direct the money to, I suggested re-directing some funds to Armenia as humanitarian aid.

I came up with a plan to raise awareness on the topic and educate people on what was going on in my country. After all, every genocide survivor always says the same thing: We should learn from history to prevent history from repeating itself. Little did I know that before educating the overall international community I would have to educate my colleagues in the ISU and face subsequent backlash. It was brought to my attention that we don’t talk about politics through our social media. The topic of publishing about Armenia got shut down immediately. As a person who saw those people as more than just colleagues but also friends, I at least expected them to care enough to learn more about the topic. Their response, however, being “we understand, and it is horrible but it is overwhelming and we have done this before. You have to understand.” 

Through my plan and available resources I talked about not only the Armenian genocide in 1915, but also the recent genocidal threats by Turkish and Azerbaijani governments and the genocide threat declaration from the Genocide Prevention Institute about the attacks and invasion on Armenia by Azerbaijan. 

This is a threat to humanity. And it is a very serious and urgent matter as people — mostly young people, and I mean younger than me — are dying every day. They cannot just disregard the genocide that has happened in 1915 and reject the genocide that continues to this day. 

Many countries accepted and publicly recognized the Armenian genocide, including the United States. They told me that “The fact that the government recognizes the event does not mean that everyone in the country does.” Even though every American that I have met here knows about and recognizes the Armenian genocide, I acknowledge there potentially are people who do not. However, it does diminish the fact that the word genocide has been created as a result of the Armenian genocide.  Similarly, I am also sure that there are extreme anti-semites who do not accept the events of the Holocaust, or worse, support it. Would that mean that because of the existence of those people my fellow colleagues would reject the existence of the Holocaust? Would that mean that they didn’t believe in genocides at all? Hardly. For some reason my fellow colleagues in the executive board believed that canceling Armenian genocide was socially acceptable.

Perhaps I would understand their attempt of withdrawing from anything politically,  had they also chosen not to dedicate any efforts in Ukraine. Organizing a whole protest and a campaign and a fundraiser towards something that is so similar to the situation in my homeland, but rejecting my request seemed unreasonable and personal at that point. Later did I understand that the club was prioritizing news that is trending.

So we decided to talk through what happened: I was told not to take professional matters personally. However, I would argue, this doesn’t work for an identity-based club. You can’t really separate my nationality, my culture, and therefore my politics from my personality. You can’t disrespect my country and expect me to settle with it.

They read the resources that I had suggested and were more educated and apologized for what they said. As I was coming up with guidelines for posting about these issues on our public platforms, as I wanted to make this awareness-spreading process a more consistent one not only for my country but for numerous other countries that would benefit from it, I was told that we should implement a policy where we prioritize news only in our newsletter section and not post it on our social media unless it was related to an event that we were organizing as an organization. I, however reluctantly, compromised and agreed. After all my efforts, we ended up dedicating the fundraiser to Armenia and Iran, for which I am very grateful.

Fast forward a year around the same time of the year. A horrific earthquake happened in Turkey and Syria. As someone whose country has been completely destroyed by an earthquake of the same magnitude in 1988 (Armenia has not yet recovered from this by the way) I can only imagine what these students felt after hearing the news. We made many exceptions to our policies to post as much as possible about the Earthquake on our public platforms. I am glad the topic got the recognition it should have gotten, nobody should struggle through that alone.

My question during this discussion was something like this: how do we decide which news to post (make exceptions for) and which to ignore? My questions stem from the fact that the e-board ignored my suggestion to publish a joint post about the Earthquake and continued spam-posting about it consistently, and I didn’t quite understand why we could do that for some events but not for others as we know that the world is not exactly perfect even when the news are not trending.

They told me that we don’t have the capacity to publish about everything and hence we should “pick and choose” which news to publish. Perhaps “picking and choosing” is a euphemism for  discrimination. How do we “pick and choose?” Their response: we should pick the trending news. The answer was mind-blowing to me, to even think that people wouldn’t be ashamed to publicly pronounce this idea as a representative of the whole international community. This explained a lot. Especially why they would be comfortable with publishing about Ukraine and Turkey (I asked during the e-board meeting to include Syria into the conversation, I guess Syria was not trending enough) but create policies against posting news about countries like Armenia. In hindsight, the policy that was created was, in fact, only for me and my country because after that and before that, the “policy” was violated and forgotten anyway.

When I raised the topic of addressing other international issues publicly, my colleagues seemed to be surprised that there are other issues in the world as well (talk about privilege). They asked me what issues exactly and when I talked about the issue back home they noted that “but it’s politics, it’s a war,” as if the label “politics” normalizes human death and genocide. I am tired of people making ignorant comments about Armenia labeling it as “politics,” tossing it on the back burner and hoping to get away with it. You can’t just make an uneducated claim about anything and everything. People said that the Artsakh situation that I was talking about is different because it is a war and it is politics. While it is still political, it is a blockade, it is a humanitarian crisis. People are dying because of food and healthcare shortages. And it is not up for debate as many government representatives, UN representatives, US news outlets and the International Justice Court have condemned the blockade. See the NYT article and CNN article. Genocides and invasions are also politics related just like the blockade but we shouldn’t avoid those topics just because we are not educated on them.

There are many more disasters in the world. Starting from the Taliban in Afghanistan, to patriarchal crime and women-murder in Iran, the Uyghur genocide in China, the floods in Pakistan, to the occupation Palestine and modern days forced labour in North Korea and Qatar, there are numerous causes to raise awareness about, but I can only talk about my experience as an Armenian. The fact that students, individuals from those countries don’t come to the e-board meetings and pressure you into doing something doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. We shouldn’t “pick and choose” and discriminate against advocating for some human lives and value others just because some topics seem “easy” and “trending” and “popular.” The same persistent issue reappears where only what is trending is ever recognized as important by the e-board of this organization.

My ISU experience as the Vice President of Publicity can be summarized as an attempt to make the club more inclusive and more representative. In no way do I critique the news that we have published through this group. I am glad that at least some issues get recognition even when their advocacy is propelled by a “beat” in coverage (i.e. trending coverage). This is a suggestion that the club should develop its horizons and utilize its reach to cover more topics that would increase the level of awareness, and potentially save the lives of thousands of innocent people. 

I enjoyed getting to know so many bright and intelligent people in the ISU community. I will definitely be missing many of them. But for now, my time with them has come to a close.

Lili Mkrtchyan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Tea with Lily runs every other Monday this semester.