Professor of practice: Ambassador Baibourtian teaches with a global touch

By Marie MacCune

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Armen Baibourtian has held many titles in his life: senior advisor for the United Nations, deputy foreign minister of Armenia, and Armenian ambassador to India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, to name a few.
His most recent title, however, is visiting professor of practice for the political science department at the University of Massachusetts.

This is Baibourtian’s third semester at UMass teaching courses focusing on security policy, globalization, and the Caucasus region. He uses his extensive background in diplomacy to guide his lectures.
“I always try to show some practical sides of diplomatic relations: how does it work in the real world? You know, how this or that conflict was arranged,” he said. “When you read (it) is great, you need (the) theory, but you also need the practical side too.”

One way he demonstrates the practical side is through what he calls “study visits” with students to the United Nations in New York.

Over winter break, Baibourtian took 21 of his students to the UN.

“Why I call it the ‘UN study visits’ is because there are normal visits that are mostly tours that many universities organize, but what I organize is very much different,” he said.

“We don’t just see the buildings and the premises,” he added. “But what I organize is very heavily focused on meetings with people – with ambassadors representing countries at the United Nations, meeting with the human resources leadership – because for me it is important that my students, and students of UMass, have an opportunity for internships and jobs at the UN.”

During the most recent “study visit” last month, students had the opportunity to meet with the director of the UN Security Council Affairs Division, who organizes all Security Council meetings.

Baibourtian said, “The meeting with this director was very interesting for the students. And the meeting (took) place in the Security Council meeting room which is normally restricted even for the UN employees.”
“That means students had the opportunity to ask questions and interact with these people, and at the same time be in the same environment where decisions are made, to feel, to see, to become a part of this entire process,” he added.

Baibourtian said he’s received “fantastic” feedback from his students about the meetings.

“These ‘study visits’ come to complement the lectures that we have because we study how things work, or what steps the UN is taking, and then you have students go to the UN where it is happening and talk to people who are the decision makers. So that makes the teaching cycle complete,” he said.

The UN is not the only place Baibourtian has brought his students to experience the real world of diplomacy. Last summer, four of his students had the chance to study at the European Union Summer School in Batumi, Georgia.

In the summer, Baibourtian teaches a course on regional security at the Austrian University of Graz, which organizes the EU Summer School.

Baibourtian said the four students were able to learn more about the region and network with other students from across the globe. He explained that the experience helps students understand what kind of life they’ll have if they choose to enter the field of diplomatic service.

“It is a mini exercise of sorts,” he said. “And it helps them get prepared for that.”

Baibourtian hopes to expand his “study visits” to include a trip to Washington, with meetings at the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Congress, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and more.

For Baibourtian, education has always been an integral part of his diplomatic service.

“When you try to develop relations with a region or country, education is a very important component of these relations. For any country, in any part of the world, education is key in very many aspects,” he said. “Normally people say political relations, or political and economic relations, prevail in diplomacy and of course they are very important, but education in itself – if you engage in education, you have an impact on all other (aspects of relations).”

He explained, “When you deal with cultures in your job, completely different cultures, and different people, different civilizations … you always try to link them in your mind. It’s difficult to find common features but then you realize the beauty in the diversity itself and that you don’t need to link them. This diversity is so beautiful.”

Education has been a way for Baibourtian to understand and better experience that diversity.

He said that through teaching, not only was he sharing his experience with students but also learning from them at the same time.

“For me it was very important to understand different cultures, political ideologies, mentalities of the people. And my interactions with students was a fantastic opportunity to understand these people and learn the countries of these people where I was posted,” he continued. “So that is why I try to keep up with this pattern of teaching in (so) many places.”

As he strives to understand different perspectives in his diplomatic service, Baibourtian appreciates his students doing the same in his classes.

“What I enjoy so often is when students speak from different sides and perspectives when discussing really difficult issues, voicing different opinions. (I consider that a) really excellent characteristic.”
In short, he said, “I really love this school.”

Marie MacCune can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MarieMacCune.