Two New Westminster Secondary School grads have earned themselves a big boost for the future.
Armen Bagdasarov and Zhaoyu Wang are among the 2021 winners of the Beedie Luminaries scholarships.
The Beedie Luminaries scholarship program was created in 2018 with a $50-million donation from Burnaby native and developer Ryan Beedie, in recognition of his own 50th birthday. The scholarships are designed to help students who have demonstrated strong academic readiness and who have “taken on life challenges and adversity with determination and optimism,” as a press release notes.
So far, the program has given out 335 scholarships to students around the province. This year, it awarded $5.1 million in scholarships to 112 Grade 12 students in B.C.
The scholarships give the students financial assistance of up to $40,000 apiece, plus mentorship, paid work opportunities, Stay on Track student support, invitations to special events and access to the Beedie Luminaries online community.
Read on for more from our interview with Armen Bagdasarov.
MEET ARMEN BAGDASAROV, NWSS CLASS OF 2021
When talking about himself, Armen Bagdasarov is cheerfully self-deprecating.
On his love of volleyball, the sport he played from Grade 7 to the end of high school: “I was never, like, any good, but I was still really passionate about it.”
On soccer, which he also loves: “I’m terrible,” he says with a laugh, but adds he’s found a supportive circle of friends in soccer players. “They just kinda took me under their wing.”
And he’s understated about his abilities at chess, his work ethic and his academic achievement – all of which are part of the reason he was chosen as one of this year’s recipients of a $40,000 Beedie Luminaries scholarship.
Even talking about his scholarship, Bagdasarov spends more time thanking the friend who suggested he apply for it than talking up his own achievements.
But ask him about his mother, and his sincerity and genuine admiration beam down the phone line.
It’s his mom, Valeriya Zhmak, who set the standard for hard work in his household.
Zhmak is a Russian immigrant who moved to North America in 1999, first to the U.S. and then to Canada. She’s a journalist by education but hasn’t been able to pursue that career in Canada.
“The problem with being a Russian journalist is there’s not really a market for Russian-language newspapers here in Vancouver. The language barrier was something that made it difficult,” Bagdasarov explains.
Instead, her life has been a series of multiple jobs. She’s a janitor, a painter, a photographer. She makes videos. She helps care for seniors.
“It’s just enough to support us,” Bagdasarov says.
'Team effort to survive'
Now raising her only son as a single mom, Zhmak has been instrumental in helping to steer him into a number of passions and pastimes.
“It’s constant. She’s been pushing me to be an actor and stuff from a young age, helping me actually find some jobs. I’ve been in a commercial or two,” Bagdasarov notes.
Zhmak has made sure her son has been busy on pretty much all fronts. From an early age, he’s taken on sports and chess (he would have been president of the NWSS chess club this year, had COVID-19 not brought things to a halt). He’s joined band, where he cites teacher Steve Clements as a big part of his success at school.
And, during his high school career, he carried his academic achievements into the international baccalaureate program, where he finished off this year in the certificate stream (meaning part of his classwork – English, history and psychology – was in IB and part in regular classes).
As he’s grown up, Bagdasarov has joined forces with his mom to help keep the family afloat. He helps her out with her cleaning – “sometimes I vacuum, wash the windows” – and with her Skip the Dishes courier work in what Bagdasarov describes as “kind of a team effort to survive.”
Since August 2019, Bagdasarov has also had his own job as a cook and dishwasher at the Royal City Centre White Spot.
“Let me tell you, working in the kitchen is insane. It’s so fast-paced,” he says. “There’s some stress, I won’t lie, but it was still a good experience overall.”
He’s been able to hand in his notice there now, he notes, thanks to the scholarship, which has given him the freedom to take the time to look for something “a little less stressful.”
Having that security is a new experience for the kid who once upon a time had to sort garbage to raise extra money to afford a class field trip to Quebec in Grade 7.
Scholarship offers a new future
Now he’s able to plan for a future he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to envision: studying in Simon Fraser University’s French cohort, with a double major in politics and French. Eighty percent of his courses will be in French, and in his third year he’ll have a chance to study in Europe – something he knows wouldn’t have been possible without the Beedie scholarship.
Bagdasarov isn’t entirely certain what he’s going to do with his future, but he’s contemplating working in a diplomatic or embassy role for the Canadian government.
For that, he’s grateful for his fluency in French – one of the three languages, along with English and Russian, that he speaks with ease.
For that, too, he knows he owes his mom a vote of thanks.
It was she who decided back before little Armen started kindergarten that he would enter the French immersion stream. His dad wasn’t sold on the idea, but his mom stood firm.
There’s a smile in Bagdasarov’s voice as he envisions a future where he’ll be able to look after his mother, instead of the other way around.
“My mom reminds me of this very often: ‘Make sure to take care of me,’” Bagdasarov says. “I hope she knows that I will.”