Alumni Spotlight: Zaven Atakhanian

My Invincible Team
by Zaven Atakhanian

I love the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Personally, I would change the word “village” to “team.” The team concept is one that’s continually emphasized in my life because of my participation in multiple basketball leagues. It is through basketball that I’ve learned about the value of teamwork. Successful teams are a collection of individuals working together as a single unit with a common goal. In numerous areas of my life, the Armenian Community acts as a team that encourages my personal and spiritual growth. The members of this community are indispensable to me and I feel fortunate to be a part of it. A great deal of what I am today was shaped by my interactions with the coaches, teachers, mentors, and family members who make up the core of my Armenian team. 

As previously stated, I participate in several basketball leagues including Hoop Heaven and Hillsdale Recreation. However, it’s through my Armenian Church Sports Association (ACSA) basketball team that I met the coach who left the greatest impression on me. I was a player for Coach Mark on ACSA for two years. Coach Mark believed in my potential and taught me the value of hard work which made me a better player. Coach Mark’s passion for the game was contagious. Under his leadership our team had an undefeated season and every player on the team contributed to what ultimately resulted in a league championship. Coach Mark understood that struggles on the basketball court (missing shots or committing turnovers) reflects our struggles in life. His philosophy was that everything was a learning experience, and as long as you kept trying there is no such thing as failure. He might have been strict with his players, but each player was privileged to learn about the sacrifices it takes to win. I cherished the time I had as a player for Coach Mark who sadly passed away last year of heart failure. Coach Mark is remembered for so much more than his basketball IQ. I carry his inspiration and guidance with me every time I step on the court. He personified what it means when individuals act selflessly for the benefit of the team. 

I have been involved with the Hamazkayin Nayiri Dance Ensemble for ten years and have performed on stage with many well-known Armenian artists. During my time in this great ensemble one person has left a profound mark on my life: my instructor Mr. Tovmas. Through Mr. Tovmas’ instruction I learned to appreciate how dance is a unique way to express myself. Mr. Tovmas never let me get discouraged. He helped me persevere especially during those times when I wanted to quit. Three years ago, Mr. Tovmas succumbed to cancer. I felt so disheartened. Mr. Tovmas’ legacy will live forever because so many students were blessed to encounter such a humble and talented man who taught by example. He taught me not only dance, but also discipline and patience. I learned that dancing is not just a casual art form. Through dance I gained the confidence to perform in front of an audience. Mr. Tovmas lit a candle for his students that can never be extinguished. 

When I was in eighth grade I had the privilege of visiting our Motherland Armenia. My Kindergarten to 2nd Grade teacher Mrs. Mesrobian made this possible. For the last eighteen years Mrs. Mesrobian has travelled to Armenia with the graduating class of the Hovnanian School. Thanks to teachers like Mrs. Mesrobian, my time as a student at Hovnanian felt like being in a second home. I made many friends there and everyone knew each other by name. The teachers were instrumental to my early learning and taught me about my culture: the immense pride that I have in Armenian history was forged here. Mrs. Mesrobian has been a mainstay at the Hovnanian School for decades and she has the admiration, trust, and respect of students, faculty and parents. She coordinated a trip that meant so much more to me than just a “vacation” with friends. She was responsible for arranging visits to historical sights that highlighted our history and culture. Under Mrs. Mesrobian’s supervision, students participated in community service (by helping to plant trees) and learned about technological innovations at the Tumo Center. Throughout the entire trip Mrs. Mesrobian was the glue that kept the entire class together. Thanks to her dedication I will never forget that experience. 

From the time I was young, Sunday School has been an integral part of my life. When I was younger (elementary school age) attending Sunday School classes was not something I often looked forward to. I would have rather slept in late. Things changed as I got older, however, when I met Pastor Astor. As his student for two years, I gained a deeper understanding of the meaning of faith. Pastor Astor always made himself available to speak with students after classes were over. Pastor Astor’s influence got me interested in joining a Bible Study group at my current high school. This group allows me the opportunity to talk about God with other classmates.  Although Pastor Astor is not part of this group (he now makes his home in Los Angeles) his voice still reverberates in my head whenever we discuss how best to serve God.  I might get the opportunity to see Pastor Astor this year during Summer camp.  I consider that a privilege because Pastor Astor is so much more than just a spiritual leader.  He is a great listener, and someone one can truly confide in.  He has an engaging personality and as such, students might find him hanging out with them during free time, he even makes appearances on the basketball court. 

The seeds of my upbringing were planted at home.  I want to acknowledge the priceless guidance and support that my family has given me while growing up.  My parents have assumed an enormous role concerning my personal development.  They encourage me to participate in social events and motivate me to explore things outside my comfort zone.  My parents give me unconditional support through all my endeavors.  This unyielding support is something I appreciate and don’t take for granted.  On the stage, in classroom, or on the basketball court, all my parents ask of me is to give it my all.  I also don’t want to neglect how significant it is to have three siblings (two brothers and a sister) to share my life with.  I am very lucky to have my older brother Vahan in my life.  He is a mentor, helps me academically, and always gives me sound advice.  Vahan and I relish friendly competition, and we express this intensely through playing one-on-one basketball and video games.  Vahan is currently a sophomore in college, he could not be a better role model.  My immediate family and extended family provide a crucial support network for me.  

That “Village” or “Team” which is necessary for fostering the development of its children prospers when its members have strong personal attributes.  These traits are found within the Armenian community at large and create a sense of pride and purpose.  As a part of that Armenian community I feel like I’m part of a winning team.  I am surrounded by these “Team Leaders” through my engagement in academics, athletics, and the arts.  The influence of significant figures such as Coach Mark, Mr. Tovmas, Mrs. Mesrobian, Pastor Astor, my family and others is immeasurable.  I embrace everything they taught me and look forward to passing these important lessons along one day so others can benefit from them.  

Zaven Atakhanian is the AMAA’s High School level James Jameson Essay contest winner 2017-18.  Zaven is an energetic, fun, and friendly 16 year old attending Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, N.J.