Educator Nancy Kalajian Receives Grant from National Endowment for the Humanities


Nancy Kalajian makes magic with Mary Poppins during a visit to New York City

BOSTON — Nancy Kalajian is not one to rest on her many laurels. The longtime educator took advantage of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to take a food and immigration-related course this summer in New York.

Kalajian, a journalist in the Armenian- American community, took a course titled, “Recipe for America: New York, Immigration and American Identity through Culinary Culture.” Kalajian was among 25 participants from across the country attending a special institute set up for teachers dealing with matters of immigration, assimilation and food culture in New York City during the 19th and 20th centuries. More than 200 applications were received. Kalajian was the only resident from Massachusetts to win the honor and one of only two from New England.

To apply to the institute, Kalajian prepared an essay and secured references from two school administrators from Tewksbury Public Schools, where she works as a Title I reading teacher for third and fourth graders.

The institute was hosted by the New York Public Library (NYPL) and was presented in conjunction with “Lunch Hour,” an NYPL exhibition about food in New York City which draws from the library’s vast materials, including its cookbook and menu collections.

The program addressed cultural traditions, the formation of ethnic neighborhoods and interactions with the broader American culture.

“It was an extraordinary experience,” said Kalajian. “We had lots of reading to do each

night and by day were basically in class with the NYPL curators or with expert culinary historians, conducting online research or research using primary documents available at the library, or were on walking tours through the Lower East Side, Harlem, Jackson Heights and other areas. As exhausting and intense as it was, this was one of the best educational experiences I ever had,” Kalajian added. “Can you imagine being able to touch and read a diary that an immigrant wrote at the turn of the century that describes foods eaten, holidays celebrated and games played? Plus it was a powerful experience — being in the same library building that many immigrants have used in the past 100 years to enrich their learning.”

Cultural ties are in Kalajian’s blood. She serves as a member of the board of directors of the Ethnic Arts Center founded by her sister, Dora Tevan, and also on the board for Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association.

After returning from a teaching stint overseas, Kalajian established Building Cultural Bridges in order to aid those in cultural transition moving from one location to another.

In the past, she also attended the NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop titled “Inventing America: Lowell and the Industrial Revolution.”

Kalajian also visited Ellis Island during her stay in New York. “It was fascinating to again see all the huge photos on display at Ellis Island, along with passports and personal artifacts from so many immigrants.”

On weekends, Kalajian visited the Metropolitan Museum and viewed exhibits on Armenian khatchkars, pottery and coins, attended church services at St. Vartan Cathedral and visited with Armenian friends and relatives living in the region. Seeing some musicals added to her cultural experience of New York City, and she remarked, “‘Porgy and Bess’ was so poignant, with such impressive acting and really shed light on the disparity and struggles for those so convincingly portrayed.”

Kalajian has taught elementary age students for more than 20 years, including a four- year stint overseas at American International Schools in Germany and Egypt. She has also worked in school publishing where she wrote teacher manuals for reading programs. Occasionally, she writes food, education, arts and human interest-orientated articles as a freelance journalist and correspondent for the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and various Boston-based newspapers.

Kalajian is a member of the Culinary Historians of Boston. She also created an Armenian pudding recipe that won third prize in a nationwide “Raisins and Rice Contest.”

“Looking back upon my experience,” added Kalajian, “the well-organized Institute deep- ened my understanding of the humanities through reading, discussion, writing and reflection. Soon, I’ll be able to apply what I learned to my present teaching surroundings and enrich the lives of students.”