Impact in Profile: Lara Sassounian

Impact in Profile: Lara Sassounian

What started out as just a class turned into the beginning of a new passion for Lara Sassounian.

Sassounian, a sophomore art history major at USC, was trying to find a course to fulfill her GE (general education) requirement last semester. The only one available, she said, was Religion 359, Culture in Diaspora: The Jews of Spain, taught by Professor Jessica Marglin. Sassounian said she had no idea what that meant, but she signed up.

To her surprise, the class ended up being one of her favorites at USC. It covered the Jewish diaspora from Spain and Portugal and how Sephardic Jews maintained ties of culture, commerce, language and identity.

When it came time for the class to write their final papers, Marglin introduced them to the Visual History Archive as a possible primary source, and the class received a personal tutorial from Visual History Archive curator Crispin Brooks.

Sassounian decided to write about Ladino, the nearly extinct language that was spoken by many Sephardic Jews before World War II. A search in the Visual History Archive returned 80 testimonies that mention Ladino, and Sassounian was captivated by them.

"You learn a lot when you see a person’s face, describing their life, culture, family, home."

“It was very meaningful and special,” to watch the testimonies, Sassounain said. “It gets you emotional. You learn a lot when you see a person’s face, describing their life, culture, family, home. It’s an intimate look on someone’s life.”

Sassounian’s paper (download link below) focuses on the effect of genocides on minority languages, including Ladino during the Holocaust and Western Armenian (which Sassounian grew up speaking) during the Armenian Genocide. Sassounian relied on several testimonies from the Visual History Archive to demonstrate how the decimation of a minority group during genocide can result in the loss of language as well.

The paper was so successful that Marglin invited Sassounian and another student from the class, Dana Austin, to present at the 5th annual ucLadino symposium at UCLA March 2-3, 2016. Marglin will moderate a session on Ladino and USC Shoah Foundation.

Sassounian said watching testimony and writing her paper helped ignite a new interest in history and political science, and she hopes more students learn about the Visual History Archive and use it as a resource.

“It’s amazing what a class and knowledge can do to you. I really fell in love with the subject,” she said. “It was much more than a class and much more than a paper.”

Downloadable Documents