Hasmik Arakelyan does it all when it comes to advocating for her students.
By Edward Segal, Staff Writer
She sat in her first-grade classroom, waiting for her teacher to touch her hand. She knew very well how to write; it was her feelings for her teacher that made her fake it. Ms. Sarkissyan came over and fixed her hand. Although she was too young to understand it, she knew she was drawn to this woman.
Psychology Professor Hasmik Arakelyan knew early that she identified as a lesbian, and was open about it since she was little. Her experience with figuring out that she is lesbian in a society that tried to suppress those feelings motivated her to spend her life helping others accept themselves.
“I identify as a cisgender woman and a lesbian, and I love being a lesbian and a woman, and if I’m born a hundred and fifty times, I want to be a woman, and I want to be a lesbian woman,” said Arakelyan.
Even though she grew up in Armenia, a country that was known to be homophobic, Arakelyan did not experience much hate. Her openness about her identity from a young age made her transition into adulthood easier for both her and her family.
“I’m the youngest of my family,” said Arakelyan. “I have a sister who’s 25 years older, and brothers who are 16 and 17 years older than me. Because everyone was so much older, they kind of experienced life in so many different ways. They had friends and relatives who were gay, and so that helped them understand me much better.”
Her parents referred to the girlfriends she brought home as “special friends,” and her brother would jokingly tell her that she was “born with a sparkling rainbow above her head.”
Though she figured out her identity without much trouble, since arriving in the United States, Arakelyan dedicates her time to making the process less stressful for others.
Arakelyan presents herself in a very simple way: her hair extends slightly below her ears, and is parted to the right. She wears a simple T-shirt to her job as psychology professor at Valley College with little more than a small heart-shaped rainbow logo right where her heart is. She does not try to impress or intimidate, but instead tries to make people feel comfortable. The professor will have an office in the multicultural center that she plans to “rainbow out” and turn into a safe space full of LGBTQ posters and literature for her students, similar to her previous office in the ASU center where she conducted her office hours.
Her fascination with psychology started back in Armenia, while she studied for her associate degree in journalism, in which a year of psychology was required. Arakelyan came to the United States at 23, and at 25, after learning English, earned her master’s at Pepperdine University, followed by her Ph.D seven years later. Arakelyan also earned a law degree and now incorporates both law and psychology into her efforts to make the world a better place for LGBT individuals.
Outside of Valley, the professor provides counseling at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, conducts sensitivity training at various universities and hosts LGBT workshops for students struggling with anything from coming out to maintaining relationships.
Her biggest achievements, however, lie in the California college realm.
When Arakelyan proposed non-gendered restrooms, she faced opposition from faculty and district members who thought they would lead to student misconduct. She persisted, knowing the pain non-binary or transgender people would feel without this right.
Before the restrooms were open in each building, there were only two on campus.
“Let’s say you’re taking a class at the behavioral sciences building, you had to walk all the way to the theater building on the other side of the campus to go to the restroom, you miss 10 to 20 minutes of your class,” said Arakelyan.
After the bathrooms materialized, Arakelyan set her focus to making the LGBT community feel even safer at Valley, starting with making the Genders and Sexualities Alliance Club visible and chartered. The LGBT advocate hung posters around campus, welcoming all students to the club’s weekly meetings.
“For a heterosexual person, it may not mean anything, but for an LGBT person, when they look at something that represents their identity, they feel so much more comfortable and safe being in that environment,” said the professor.
Arakelyan also used her own funds to start the “Rainbow Pride Scholarship,” a scholarship dedicated to students within the LGBT community. Every year, the advocate donates her money to keep the scholarship going in order to make sure her students are supported throughout their college journey.
But she isn’t done yet.
Arakelyan’s plans for Valley’s future revolve around the LGBT branch of the multicultural center where various events, ranging from workshops to movie nights, will take place in the spring of 2022. She is also looking forward to the college offering the first introduction to LGBTQ+ studies course offered in California if the state approves the curriculum and hopes to create an entire LGBT department at Valley. The 700-book library she will bring to Valley, featuring both fiction and nonfiction award-winning books written by and about the LGBT community, will certainly boost her aspirations of achieving the feat.
For her efforts, Arakelyan received the “Outstanding Service & Mentoring to Students” award in 2017, which is bestowed to a person who helped one or more students by enhancing their education, personal lives, or career goals. That same year, the professor received the “Standout Educator” award, one of five Apple Awards coordinated by students of Tau Alpha Epsilon (TAE) to show their appreciation of certain faculty members, according to the college’s website.
Kimberly Robeson, co-advisor of the GSA club, said she admires the psychology professor greatly and feels privileged to work with her.
“She [Arakelyan] is our top LGBTQ+ advocate at LAVC,” said Robeson, who has known the psychology professor for nearly six years. “She is a dedicated person and has done so much for LGBTQ+ visibility at Valley.”
What Arakelyan loves seeing most in teaching is when her students go from opposing the LGBT community to respecting its people as the individuals that they are.
“It’s okay to be homophobic,” she tells her students, “but it’s not okay to stay homophobic after this class.”
Seeing the growth of her students is what drew her to working as a professor, not just her ability to teach psychology.
“Education is the best form of evolution,” said Arakelyan.