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Epidemiologist and Concordia alumnus Herak Apelian: ‘I found my home in Montreal’

The former international student says the city’s edge, affordable tuition and bilingual culture helped him decide to become a permanent resident
December 18, 2023

A portrait of a smiling man wearing a shirt, a cardigan and glasses While affordable tuition and interesting research opportunities may have initially kept Herak Apelian in Montreal, he says his attachment to the city has more to do with its unique culture and diversity.

Raised in Lebanon, Concordia alumnus Herak Apelian, BSc 11, grew up learning French from kindergarten. But it was after moving to Montreal years later that a co-worker — a nurse on the night shift at the city’s Jewish General Hospital — caught him up on some of the more colourful local expressions. 

“It’s funny, actually. We printed this whole list of Québécois expressions and went through which ones were common,” says Apelian, the hospital’s former emergency room coordinator. 

“Many expressions came from that one day, where we were just going through the list. One of my favourites is bof!” he says of the term expressing lack of enthusiasm or interest.

“It’s so short and it says so much.” 


From Lebanon to Concordia

Apelian moved to Quebec in 2009 to study at Concordia for his undergraduate degree. His family encouraged him to apply to three cities where he already had roots and connections. But it was Montreal’s bilingual nature that swayed him.   

“It was a family decision. There was the means and the support, and the idea that, you know, studying outside of Lebanon would create more opportunities for the future,” Apelian says.

“I’m bilingual, the system is bilingual, so it was ideal to continue here.” 

Apelian completed his undergraduate degree in biology at Concordia in 2011. He is also an alumnus of Concordia’s Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability, with a minor in diversity and the contemporary world.  

A career in public health

Apelian worked at the Jewish General Hospital for five years, until he was able to establish permanent residency. He says the affordable tuition fees available to residents made it possible for him to then attend grad school at McGill University. 

“Through graduate studies, I found myself becoming interested in sexual health and HIV research on the population level,” he explains. “I did that for a number of years. Then, in 2022, I had the opportunity to join the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).” 

Apelian works in PHAC’s HIV and Hepatitis C Enhanced Surveillance Section, where he is part of a team that conducts biobehavioural surveys across key populations. 

He notes that his language skills were a definite asset when it came time to graduate and find work.  


Finding a home in Montreal

As a professional researcher, Apelian’s work is evidence-informed. So it’s unsurprising when he raises concerns about the rationale behind the recent proposed tuition fee hikes for out-of-province and international students. 

“First of all, I’m not sure if it’s evidence-based decision-making,” he says. “It’s unfortunate. Because you’re going to lose a lot of potential people coming here and staying here.” 

He also points out that international students can be active, contributing members of society, whether they remain in Quebec after graduation or not.  

“International student pathways can take any form,” Apelian notes. 

“Even if you leave, you’re keeping some of these bonds. Whether you’re working in academia, research or otherwise, you’re maintaining the bonds that you’ve created in the place where you did your training,” he points out.

“All of those potentialities are going to be lost or diminished.” 

While affordable tuition and interesting research opportunities may have initially kept Apelian in Montreal, he says his attachment to the city has more to do with its unique culture and diversity. 

“Everybody says Montreal is different; I was feeling that. And in each of these chapters, I was lucky to have people that I cherish,” he says.

“I have Québécois friends, Montrealers who are ethnically Polish, Vietnamese — it’s a mix of everything. I think seeing that diversity, the edgy character of Montreal — but as a city that’s comfortable to live in — is what made me stay,” Apelian adds.

“I found my home in Montreal.”

Discover where a degree from Concordia’s Department of Biology can take you.


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