From empty pockets to vice president.
by Brian Velez
photography by Mitchell Aleman
Newly appointed University of La Verne vice president of finance Avedis Kechichian sits at his desk on the second floor of Woody Hall, absorbed in an Excel page of numbers. Soft morning light enters through the window behind his computer monitor. Avo (as he is known in University circles) is weighing tough financial requests that will transform the University while keeping the school honest within its total $158.5 million annual budget. And he continually is focused on building La Verne’s $40 million endowment. Avo’s new job is layered onto his existing title of University treasurer. He answers to the Board of Trustees and the president. He is the financial interpreter of the vision set forth by the new University strategic plan. This plan will aim and restructure the school so that by the year 2020 it will be convincingly nationally recognized while continuing to provide quality academic services to its students. Avo holds this important financial role in the University’s future. It is a challenge he embraces with zeal.
From Lebanon to La Verne
Avo is the son of a shoe factory supervisor and stay-at-home mom. He was born in 1958 in Bourdj Hamoud, Lebanon, to a family with two sisters. His was a stable, normal family life until 1975. Then all that changed. Avo pauses and stares into space at the mention of the Lebanese Civil War. “I had a very happy childhood until the Civil War broke out. Sometimes, we couldn’t go to school because there were snipers on the street.” A sly grin crosses his face, and he mocks his once-felt terror. “When we had a test at school, we wanted snipers on the street.” The Lebanese Civil War lasted for 15 years and grew from political party and religious conflicts. Avo is Armenian; from the beginning, he says, the Armenians living in Lebanon chose to not be involved in the conflict. “Armenians, as a minority in Lebanon, tried to stay neutral in the Civil War. I think that was the right decision by our leadership.”
Starting with World War I, his family’s life story has been shaped by wars and political strife. As a result, the four generations of Avo’s family were each born in a different country: his grandfather in western Armenia (Turkey), his father in Syria (where his grandparents first fled in 1915 during the Armenian genocide), Avo in Lebanon and his children in the United States.
The family holds a 50 Lyria promisory note to reclaim the grandparents’ land, house and furnishings in western Armenia if Turkey ever provides restitution to genocide victims. “My grandfather had acres and acres of orchards. Before fleeing for his life, he went to city hall and gained a note saying he could reclaim his property.
When the family arrived in Lebanon, they found it was welcoming to Armenians “who were forced out of Turkey,” says Avo. “We wanted to be thankful to the Lebanese people for inviting us in, so we didn’t want to be involved in the Civil War; we wanted to be contributing citizens.”
In 1977, he was 18 years old, and Lebanon was two years into its conflict. Nevertheless, Avo was focusing on his future following high school. He was determined to attend college, for education was important to his family. “It was always my father’s dream that if he ever formed a family and his kids wanted to go to school, he would sacrifice everything and anything to make sure we were able to go to school.” Neither of Avo’s parents had a high school education; his father Nazareth was not able to attend school yet pushed for his children to be educated to the college level. “My grandparents could not afford to send my parents to school; they were forced to work, and that was something that had always bothered my father.” Avo applied to three colleges. “I got accepted by all the institutions, but my parents did not want me to attend the Armenian University of Beirut because it was on the other side of town; they were worried about the war.” Avo’s other options were to attend school in Armenia or the United States. “The discussion I remember with my father sitting around the table was, ‘Where do you want to go? Armenia [The University of Yerevan, USSR] or the USA?’” At that table, Avo says he chose to attend the American Armenian International College (AAIC), the only Armenian college in the United States, open for one year and sharing its accreditation umbrella with the University of La Verne.
Finding a job to pay his tuition
Avo traveled by plane for two days (with layovers) and landed in Los Angeles Sept. 2, 1977, with only his clothes and not much else. “I had $300,” he remembers, now with a smile. “I bought lunch at a hamburger place, and I said after that, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to last me too long; I need to find a job.’” He laughs at his once desperate thought. Although Avo received limited financial help from AAIC and his parents, he also held many jobs to pay the tuition. “I’m an 18 year old kid; I had no skills. I worked at a gas station; it was in Covina.” His three-year stint at the gas station ended abruptly when it went up in flames, with Avo inside. The night before the station caught fire, the gas station owner was cleaning and left a bucket of flammable liquid next to the water heater. “The next morning, when I came in to open the gas station, I tried to move the bucket out of the way. The fluid that was in it leaked and went under the water heater,” says Avo. “I was in the fire. I had to run out. It was a scary moment.” Following, Avo held jobs vacuuming the floor of the ULV library every night and worked at a carpet store in Claremont. Although he now smiles as he reminisces about past jobs, one in particular surfaces memories of a young man self conscious of how he was seen in his new country. “One of the jobs I had on campus was picking up trash. I would start as early as I could in the morning.” Every weekday, Avo would walk the ULV campus at 6 a.m. with a trash picking tool. “I would try to do it as early as possible to not have other students see me do that. At the time, being young and all that I felt ashamed, but I needed the job so I did it.” He says it took him some time to feel comfortable in his new country.
It was also tough for Avo’s family to deal with their only son and brother being so far away. “It was difficult, especially for my parents; it was hard to see my parents like this, especially my mom crying all the time,” says Ani Kechichian, Avo’s youngest sister. Ani’s eyes tear up with the memory. She pauses while remembering life in Lebanon with her older brother being in the United States, then describes their mother’s ritual after talking to Avo on the phone. “When we hung up the phone, it was always emotional, especially for my mom; she used to smoke at the time, and the first thing she would do is get a cigarette and stare out the window and smoke and cry.” Both of Avo’s parents and two sisters would eventually emigrate to the United States through a work visa his father received in 1985. Presently, the Kechichian family lives in the Southern California area (his dad passed in 1995).
Avo says that the cultural difference between the two countries seemed at first overwhelming. “I remember sitting at the steps of Founders Hall and wondering whether I made the right decision. I felt lonely. I felt that I didn’t know anyone; it was one of those weird feelings.” It also took Avo some time to get used to a country not being at war. “Coming from Lebanon where we were in the midst of a Civil War—lawlessness everywhere, trash everywhere, getting used to gunfire—and all of a sudden there’s this calmness about La Verne. I had a hard time sleeping at night because I didn’t hear gunfire. Initially, it was very tough trying to get used to being here, but after a while I got used to it.” After graduating with a degree in business administration from both AAIC and ULV in 1985 (AAIC students earned two diplomas), he was offered an accounting job at AAIC. After about one year, Avo was asked to, in his words, “jump ship” by Gordon Whitby, then vice president of administration and finance and a former University of La Verne Board of Trustee member. He accepted the job as payroll manager for ULV. It was a fortunate decision, for AAIC closed its doors in 1992.
On his office wall is the Armenian alphabet, created to translate the Bible. There are no cuss words in Armenian. One must use another language to do that. He glances at it and recites it with a grin. Avo is proud of being Armenian and embraces his culture. His first cousin, Aram I, is head of the Armenian Church. Based in Lebanon, he is Catholicos for all Armenians living abroad.
Sometimes cultural traditions were problematic in issues of the heart. But it was no match for his love toward his wife. Avo met Michelle in the early ‘90s when she was an undergraduate student at ULV, and he worked in the payroll department. She was with another student and was directed to Avo’s office to resolve a payment issue. That was the first time Avo saw Michelle. “I remember telling her, ‘Why don’t we go out to lunch?’ And that was it. I never saw her again for another six months.” Six months later, Avo ran in to Michelle again. “I said, ‘What happened to that lunch?’ ‘Well, you never called me,’” replied Michelle. That was the beginning of their relationship. Avo and Michelle dated for six years before marrying, even though Avo had been hesitant because of his Armenian culture. “I told her we were not getting married; I’m going to marry an Armenian girl. Love in this case trumped nationality, I guess,” says Avo. “Within the first three months of dating him, I knew in my mind and in my heart—this man, his character, his values—he was someone I could spend the rest of my life with,” says Michelle. She has come to embrace Avo’s culture and says she has a greater understanding of why families would want members to marry within the same religion or ethnicity for a fear of losing a person’s history or sense of identity. Michelle says she understands that Avo wanted to have a partner in his life with strong family values. Life is in session for them now, with their two children Chris, 13, and Alex, 11. Avo jumps readily into school and sports functions. Building on his college days when he was on the La Verne Men’s Soccer team, he leads as a referee for youth soccer. Michelle is an academic adviser and an adjunct professor for the ULV College of Business and Public Management. Michelle says that Avo and his character are the walking example of ULV. He is “someone who values life long-learning, community diversity, community engagement, all of those things; it’s the University of La Verne: This is my husband.”
From the second floor of Woody Hall, above a campus where he once picked trash and vacuumed floors, Avo now leads as an integral part of the ULV administration. He is a man who traveled halfway around the world and arrived at a University that compliments his values. In turn, Avo dedicates his life to the institution. “It’s like I have this love affair with La Verne. I’ve traveled, and no matter where I go, I still end up back in La Verne.”