Karl Aharonian, a first-year medical student at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, appreciates the scientific process, relying on empirical data, verifiable evidence, and logical reasoning to reach a conclusion.
Count him as a true believer in academic medicine.
And yet this native of Russia, whose bachelor’s degree in biology at UNLV came summa cum laude and earned him Phi Beta Kappa distinction, says that when he looks at what has happened in his own life, how he got to this place and time, it’s difficult for him to not also see the role that fate, something outside of his control, played.
“It’s very hard to think of what has happened in any other way,” he says, laughing.
Born in 1997 in Volgograd, Russia, Aharonian was brought into a world that had seen the collapse of the Soviet Union six years earlier. His parents originally were from Armenia, which had been under Soviet rule for 70 years before becoming one of 12 republics that threw off Soviet occupation in 1991. For the vast majority of people, however, including those in Russia, independence did not mean economic prosperity.
Though Aharonian’s father had been trained as a construction engineer, he couldn’t find work in his discipline for many years. “By the age of 10, I remember moving at least four times, with my father selling street food from a kiosk and my mother taking care of me and my brother,” says the medical student. “It wasn’t an easy life.”
In Voronezh, Russia, a fertile agricultural area also famous for its aeronautical and space industry, Aharonian’s family finally settled down when his father got a job with a construction firm. In that city about 300 miles from Moscow, Ahronian would become a star student, able to go to Western Europe during the summers to work on his command of the German language.
At the age of 15, when he was in Germany during the summer, his mother told him that she was going to travel to Las Vegas to see his uncle and her father, who was dying of pancreatic cancer. Aharonian convinced his mother that it was also important for him to see these members of his family, and they traveled together to Nevada 10 years ago.
It was a trip that would forever change his life.
While in Nevada, Aharonian’s mother, thinking that the entire family might one day be able to move to the U.S. from Russia, entered, with thousands of other people, the Green Card immigration lottery, which allowed winners to live and work in the U.S. and start the process to become a naturalized citizen. To her astonishment, the woman who was on a tourist visa won a green card, with the same benefit going to her son in the U.S. since he was a minor.
“The probabilities of that happening were next to nothing,” says Aharonian, who notes that Russian-American relations currently make any chances of his entire family immigrating to the U.S. slim to none.
Aharonian, who could speak Russian, Armenian, and German but not English, asked his mother if he could go to school in America. After she said yes, family friends told him that a private school, the Adelson Educational Campus, had educators who were good at teaching international students.
Aharonian’s mother went to work in her brother’s real estate office in Southern Nevada, though her sales work was compromised by her difficulty with the English language. “By that time, my father had started his own construction company in Russia, and he was able to send money to my mother and me so we could live and for my education,” Aharonian says.
For six months as a high school sophomore, Aharonian went through the painstaking process of looking up every word he read or heard in the dictionary. “And then everything just seemed to click about the English language,” he says. “I became fairly proficient.”
He was so proficient in both the language and his studies that he was able to win scholarships to UNLV, where he thrived. In his senior year, he took a job with Retina Consultants of Nevada, where he worked for a year after graduation, becoming a top medical assistant who was able to do patient care that included examinations and imaging of the eyes. Later, he was able to do clinical research into retinal disorders.
His enjoyment in shadowing a physician there had him planning to become an ophthalmologist. In 2022, he began his studies at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine.
On orientation day at the medical school, he announced he’d become a citizen. It was also the day he, Karen Agaronian, officially changed his name to Karl Aharonian. “In Armenian, Karen is a name for a male, but it was too confusing to have that name in the U.S so I changed it to Karl,” he explains. “For my last name, the Russian authorities changed the ‘h' to ‘g’ because there is no ‘h’ in the Russian language. I wanted my last name to reflect what my parents wanted, the Armenian Aharonian, which is derived from Aaron, brother of Moses, in the Bible.”
The more Aharonian thinks about how his life has turned out, the more amazing it seems to him.
“I am from a family that is proudly Armenian going to the only medical school in the U.S. named after an Armenian immigrant, Kirk Kerkorian,” he says. “What are the chances?”