Giving Up Is Not an Option for Iranian-Armenian Health Sciences Student

La Sierra University undergrad lands US$20,000 student research award.

Darla Martin Tucker, La Sierra University
Giving Up Is Not an Option for Iranian-Armenian Health Sciences Student
Marash Keshishian poses for photos last school year on La Sierra University’s campus. [Photo: La Sierra University]

As a young ethnic Armenian girl growing up in Iran, Marash Keshishian loved swimming and dreamed of competing in the sport. But discriminatory laws and strict mores threatened her future, influencing her family’s emigration in 2015 to a new life in the United States.

Inspired by an uncle who worked for Loma Linda University’s School of Pharmacy, Marash, after graduating from high school and completing a year of community college, enrolled at La Sierra University in 2021 as a biology and pre-med major. While she had been raised in an orthodox Armenian Christian family, Keshisian became interested in the Seventh-day Adventist faith during her collegiate journey at La Sierra. She was baptized in April 2021.

Last school year, Marash switched majors to focus on health science and nutrition and, last October, landed a competitive US$20,000 award as a student researcher in the Transdisciplinary Tobacco Research Program in Loma Linda University’s Cancer Center. She will function as a research assistant with the Smoke Free HOPE clinical trial. She received the award letter on October 9.

“Coming from a family of non-smokers, I have always been taught as a child about the negative effects of tobacco which has grown my interest in tobacco control,” Marash said. “Younger people would not take me seriously due to my age and level of education, but now that I have the opportunity to fulfill my goals of many years while benefiting myself as well as others, I am excited to expand my field of knowledge and raise awareness of how much of a negative impact tobacco can have on our population, but more specifically pregnant women in certain regions of the world who use smokeless tobacco with the belief of certain tobaccos helping with pregnancy morning sickness.”

Additionally, Marash was recently informed that she has been selected as the La Sierra University Weniger Fellows scholarship awardee to be recognized on February 17 at the Loma Linda University Church by the Charles E. Weniger Society during its annual meeting and awards event. The organization honors individuals within Adventist higher education who have made significant impacts and contributions and who uphold the ideals of the late Charles Weniger, an Adventist professor.

Advocacy is a familiar role for Marash and an instinctual pivot. Last year she functioned as a student advocate in California’s capitol with the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, of which La Sierra University is a member. She joined other students for AICCU’s annual student lobby day and participated in discussing policies that affect higher education. She gave a testimonial video on the importance of state aid to immigrants in achieving their education goals.

For Marash, the pressure to succeed in the U.S. is both forward-facing and anchored in her grandparents’ dreams. She aims to be an example to her future children and to take advantage of educational opportunities denied to her grandparents, in particular her grandmothers, whose educational attainment did not extend beyond elementary school due to generational beliefs and governmental restrictions of the day. She also has a burden to share her successes with friends in her birthplace of Iran, who are held back by limitations, as well as women in her motherland of Armenia.

“You don’t just become successful for yourself, your family, but also, what do you contribute back to the community?” she said.

Marash is contemplating potential medical careers in pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecologist (OB-GYN) specialties, a decision-making process aided by a five-week experience from August 1 to September 8 last summer in Armenia. She shadowed physicians and surgeons while completing a residency program two days a week at the country’s oldest hospital and volunteered with special needs children’s programs at Armenia’s first rehabilitation center designed for this population.

It was Marash’s first journey in nine years to her native land, and she was able to visit relatives who live there when not engaging in the mission of her trip. During last summer’s stay, in addition to shadowing and volunteering activities, she also distributed clothing and money to families in several villages, and helped with village work, including feeding animals, harvesting fruit, and collecting and selling flowers for a mini family farm and flower business. Before her trip, she and her family members had gathered clothing items and funds for distribution to those in need at villages in different regions.  

“I was trying to do something that not only included my contribution of time to those organizations and places, but also me learning something from them,” she said. “The goal was to serve people.”

The Armenian rehabilitation facilities where Marash volunteered provide therapy programs addressing a wide range of disabilities in children, adults, and soldiers with Armenia’s military who were wounded in past wars. She helped with play time and devising educational activities with special needs children, giving instruction in the Armenian alphabet, in color recognition, touch activities, in puzzle making and other exercises, and drawing upon her past experiences of working with special needs kids as a swim coach and lifeguard. She also contributed many educational and learning tools to the centers that were donated for her trip to Armenia.

“I’m trying to make actions which make my heart and all other patients’, parents’, and children’s hearts happy,” she said. She noted that mothers of some of the children she worked with sent messages to her on Instagram after she left Armenia and sent photos of their kids. They expressed appreciation for her kindness and wanted to show their children’s progress. 

At the Erebuni Medical Center in Armenia, she was able to secure permission through a personal connection to observe surgical procedures and births as a resident of the hospital’s OB-GYN program, an experience that would be typically unavailable for an undergraduate in the U.S., where laws and protocol are more stringent. Her observations of procedures, treatments, medications, and medical terminology made her more certain of her interests in a medical career.

“Visualizing and seeing this from a surgeon’s eye, how they rotate shifts, how many hours they work, what their day is like once they’re on duty and after, as housewives and professional physicians, kind of gave me an understanding of what my life could be like as a working physician and mommy to my bundles of joy in future,” she said.

Just Keep Going

“I always dreamed of being a physician, so that’s my goal,” Marash said in an interview before her summer trip. “I want to do either pediatrician or OB-GYN. But God has a plan. Maybe what I want would not happen because God has a better plan. But at the moment, that’s my career goal. I have so much faith in God that even if my plans get altered, I know that they will be better because God is the one guiding me.”

Marash’s family members were among many Armenians to live in Iran as its largest Christian ethnic minority, many of whom are the descendants of refugees who fled the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenian Christians that began on April 24, 1915, and affected many other Armenians around the world.

The Armenian culture is rich and is home to a diversity of Christian denominations. In Iran, Armenians were allowed to practice their religion, literature, and history within their own private schools, churches, and homes. Marash’s family ensured that she attended Armenian schools throughout her life in Iran so that she could practice her Christian religion, speak her mother language, and learn Armenian literature and culture. She also learned Farsi, the official language of Iran, in addition to Arabic, and Persian literature during two years of middle school.

But as Marash developed dreams of achievement, as she succeeded in school and began to enter broader Iranian society as a teenager, she came up against open discrimination and academic environments that required her to forego her Christian beliefs. Her parents feared for her future.

“I’m trying to think about the good things that [Iran] has given me,” she said, “because I have my education, my trilingual skills, my culture, everything is from Iran. In other words, it is my past that has shaped me into who I am. However, I don’t want to forget about the negative stuff that has happened to me. As an Armenian and Christian woman, I was born into a male-dominated country. I went through lots of challenges since I was a kid. Even though going through certain challenges was not pleasant, I have used those negative aspects to seek better options and opportunities to grow like a seed wherever I get planted.”

Following a three-month immigration process that the family underwent in Vienna, Austria, the Keshishians landed at Los Angeles International Airport on September 1, 2015. They officially entered a new life in a new country that offered the desired freedoms and far greater opportunities for success, but with difficult and costly adjustments that included leaving behind all of their achievements in Iran. “You just leave all you have gained as a result of all those years of hard work at the airport and leave the country,” Marash said, quoting her father.

“My aunts and uncles immigrated here way before me,” she continued. “For all the years that I was away from them, I would always speak to my cousin who was 10 months younger than me, and she would tell me about how amazing and cool her elementary school was, about great places like Disneyland and Universal Studios she would go to in addition to having so much freedom to wear whatever she wanted at school or how nice she was being treated by her teachers in comparison to what I had with limited freedom of speech, religion, et cetera.”

The immigration transition required the family to become fluent in English, a fourth language for them after their native tongue of Armenian, Farsi (the language of Iran), and Arabic, which is required by Iran’s Islamic school system in middle school. Marash completed Arabic through seventh grade and eighth grade before she immigrated during the last month of her eighth-grade year.

Of all the adjustments the family faced in the United States, and despite their prior English classes, the language barrier with its cultural slang, borrowed terms and mixtures of pronunciations and meanings proved among the most difficult, Marash said.

In general, the culture shock was extensive. Marash had grown up in a strong cultural and strict family, so that seeing certain freedoms students took for granted in school in the U.S. was a disquieting experience. This included a comparatively relaxed style of dress and students’ actions in class or tone while talking to their teachers.

“The schools in the U.S. were way more chill than it was in my country,” she said. “For a whole month, my dad did not let me take my phone to high school. My dad still had the conception that I was going to a strict school like in Iran, so he was like, ‘You are only wearing business professional stuff to school and no leggings or sweats like the majority of students.’ So people used to make fun of me, because I took high school so seriously.

“I do not regret it a second, because I have always lived my life and desire to continue living it in a way that I am left with no regrets,” Marash said. “It wasn’t either my parents’ or my fault for thinking that way, but the new exposure to the big change which we were not used to.”

Marash’s parents suffered the most during their transition to America, which required sacrificing all they had built in Iran, she said. “I owe my parents for sacrificing their dreams to make mine come true, through which they have set the example for me to be the same way for my future children, if necessary.”

Of the many paths down which Marash traveled after her arrival to the U.S., two culminated in lifechanging, pivotal moments: her baptism into the Seventh-day Adventist faith along with her uncle at the Living Stones Seventh-day Adventist Church in La Crescenta, and her acquisition of U.S. citizenship. Even though she had been baptized an orthodox Armenian Christian in Iran, Marash decided to take up the Adventist faith after attending church on Saturday (Sabbath), which was her only day available to attend services due to her busy schedule. Her family supported her decision.

On the day of her baptism by John Aitken, she and her parents also participated in the U.S. oath of allegiance ceremony, which was held differently that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even though doing both the oath ceremony and baptism can be a lot in one day, we had such a fun day,” she said.

After becoming citizens, the Keshishians began the process of acquiring their new passports. “I was so excited when I got the passport,” Marash said. “It sounds weird for Americans to be this excited over getting a U.S. passport, but it’s a dream for us because in order to earn that citizenship, we have sacrificed a lot and gone through lots of challenges.”

With significant hurdles behind her, Marash focuses on taking steps toward major objectives that in her previous life would have been held in check by unmovable forces. 

“I have so many big goals that sometimes people are like, ‘You are an overachiever, you just overthink it, and you cannot change the world.’ But my response is that I know clapping would not work with one hand, but by two or more,” Marash said. “This means that one person is not enough to make a change but multiple people. Even though it seems impossible and very difficult, I am willing to personally do my best in my power to make the world a better place by transferring my education and knowledge to society.

“Anytime I go through my downs, the thing that keeps me back on my feet is remembering what was my motivation to start. That is why I always say, ‘No, there is no giving up. If one approach did not get you to your goal, there is always an alternate route and an option. There is no feeling sad or anxious. Just keep going till your ‘I hope’ becomes ‘I made it.’ ”

The original version of this story was posted by La Sierra University.

Darla Martin Tucker, La Sierra University