American Univesity of Beirut

​​​​Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,​

Next Step offers better future for students with special needs

Down Syndrome Day is marked on March 21 (or 3/21), chosen to raise awareness of a condition brought about by trisomy 21, or the irregular presence of a third copy of chromosome 21 in the human genome. This day has taken on a particular significance at AUB since the launch of Next Step, a groundbreaking transition program for young people with intellectual disability at the Continuing Education Center of the Regional External Programs office, in collaboration with the Lebanese Down Syndrome Association (LDSA) and several other NGOs.

Before Next Step started two years ago, young adults and youth with intellectual disability or Down Syndrome were deprived of any opportunity in Lebanon to claim the education they needed to furnish them with personal and social skills, and career and vocational awareness in order to live as independently as possible and find gainful employment. The invariable result was their leading sheltered, lonely, and unfulfilled lives as a burden on their families without hope of release or respite.  

Everyone who attended this year's joyous and life-affirming WDSD event, hosted by the Next Step staff and students at West Hall, or who has encountered the students heading to lunch at the Ada Dodge Cafeteria, knows that a very different outcome is possible. Understandably shy and withdrawn when they first joined AUB, the students now exude warmth and confidence, making friends wherever they go, and teaching us all that intellectual disability is no obstacle to participating as engaged members of a community.

The driving force behind this rare and wonderful program is Hana Abu Khadra Salem, a woman of considerable vision and resolve, whose daughter Zeina is enrolled in the first Next Step cohort of 12 students. Since the birth of her daughter, Mrs. Salem has harbored a strong determination for Zeina and all those like her in Lebanon to be able to benefit from the same learning opportunities existing in developed countries such as the US and UK. Over the past 25 years, she has become an authority on special needs education, as well as a skilled partnership builder, bringing together the OpenMinds NGO, the inclusive school Heritage College, where Zeina studied, and the Diet Center, where students gain work experience.​

Every Next Step student plays a valuable role in an AUB community that is straining to become more diverse, more inclusive. But Zeina Salem's star shone particularly brightly on #WDSD19 with a spellbinding presentation​ that offered rare insight into what it is like to live with DS, while appealing to the audience to move past her disability and see the dignified, talented, and authentic individual she is.

The event was particularly moving for the student volunteers—drawn from AUB clubs and relevant fields of study such as education or psychology—who participate as classroom assistants. They have watched the hard-working Next Step students blossom in a state-of-the-art program that nurtures their interests and reinforces their strengths in an appropriately supportive environment.

For several student volunteers, the experience has kindled a vocation to pursue future careers in special needs education, offering hope for greater capacity to provide people with Down Syndrome and other learning disabilities in Lebanon with the learning opportunities they need to lead full lives. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing Next Step growing in size and scope and the present Next Step cohort joining the community of extraordinary AUB graduates when I hand them their well-earned diplomas next year.  ​

Presidential thoughts on Alma Mater 2.0

How to develop a more inclusive and diverse education was at the heart of the topics tackled during a memorable roundtable with two colleagues last month that looked at how universities can reimagine the relationship with their whole community. President Claire Sterk of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and Dr. Chase Robinson, former president of The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), joined me in AUB's New York office to examine how the relationship with alumni is changing, what remains the same, and how we can all do better. 

It is clear to those of us who came through the system 30 or more years ago that today's students want to be connected in a very different way. Instead of waving goodbye to our undergraduates after four years, and only reconnecting when we are looking for donations, we are conscious of the need to build lifelong, sustainable, evolving relationships that make use of technology to bridge the gaps. Distance learning, experiential learning, continuing education, and intergenerational learning are obvious ways to address the reality that we are all lifelong students, as well as being mentors to others over our lifetimes.

President Sterk pointed out that the evolution of Emory from a small school in Oxford, Georgia, has created seven different generations of alumni, each with their own contrasting cultural experiences. “Universities have to do a good job of communicating to all what we want to accomplish together," she said.  Emory preemptively welcomes students on their first day on campus as “alumni," acknowledging that four years represent a just brief phase in a lifelong connection. ​

Dr. Robinson detailed challenges to higher education in the United States, and by extension elsewhere, with fewer students enrolled now than a decade ago, primarily because of economic reasons. “Only 60% of these students graduate after four years nationwide, so we may not be doing such a great job of holding onto our students either," he said.

We went on to address the challenge of increasing the population of international students, so diversity and the global dimension are part of the fabric of the education.  At AUB, we have been uniquely acculturated with the work ethic and liberal arts ethos espoused by the founding generation, but also transformed by 153 years being in Lebanon and of Lebanon. One place we could do better is to be more aware of how welcoming we are of people who may hesitate to leave their home culture to join us.  ​

Finally, we agreed that we can facilitate much more interaction between students, faculty, and alumni, and one of the things we may need to do as administrators is to get out of the way to allow more of these organic connections. It is not as straightforward as just designing an app. It is about making sure we define our common mission and ethos to resonate with our community over a lifetime.

Volunteering to HEAL vulnerable migrants

Imagine yourself a migrant worker. Your employer controls every aspect of your life; you have minimal savings or legal protection; racist attitudes are everywhere and most people treat you with disdain or indifference. Even if blessed with good health, life is arduous—but what if you fall ill? A group of AUB medical students have wrestled with this question, and over two years have built a remarkable collaboration called Health, Employment, Advocacy, Learning (HEAL), a free clinic for migrant workers at AUBMC's Family Medicine Department in the Sawwaf Building.

The initiative stemmed from their desire to season education with hands-on civic activism using the skills acquired early in their medical training. Co-founder Lama Assi started volunteering at the Migrant Community Center (MCC) as a pre-med undergraduate, progressing through language tutoring, to teaching health classes, to organizing a one-off health screening day for which she gathered fellow Med 1 students and volunteer attending physicians to check some 120 patients for hypertension, diabetes, and other basic tests. ​

When Lama read the comments after the screen, she was surprised how much impact it had on the migrants. Many had spent years in Lebanon without seeing a doctor. One said she had been allowed to “feel human" for the first time since arriving here. The feedback was so positive, and Lama's fellow students' enthusiasm so energizing, that she and three friends—Jessica Atieh, Ahmad Chmaisse, and Hiba Dagher—set their sights on the daunting task of creating a free clinic for migrants staffed by volunteers. 

Thanks to their leadership and the unstinting backing of peers and medical faculty, HEAL is now a mature and sustainable program under the AUBM​Cares initiative, with a new administrative team poised to take over as the original quartet graduates this year. Thirty-two clinics have been held and six specialty clinics, for women's health, rheumatology, and pediatrics. They have accommodated 455 patient visits, handled by 143 medical and nursing volunteers, overseen by 30 volunteer resident and attending preceptors. As Med 3 and 4 students do the clinical work, they teach pre-clinical volunteers from Med 1 and 2 who sit in on medical encounters. The volunteer admins arranging clinics in collaboration with MCC, developing hands-on experience in healthcare management, patient affairs, health education, and handling referrals and laboratory tests, not to mention fundraising and public relations.


While providing welcome support to vulnerable patients, the HEAL volunteers know their limitations—what if they diagnose an illness requiring medical treatment beyond their patients' financial resources? Some medical centers do not only not treat migrants, they report those without papers to the authorities. The team have developed admirable skills negotiating fair and affordable follow-up care for their patients, and the more money they raise the more much-needed support they can provide.

Should medical students be taking on such responsibilities? After all, their workload can already lead to burnout, depression, or worse. But the HEAL volunteers convey such joy and satisfaction about how they serve and what they learn from their patients, it seems the opposite is the case. Lama Assi, for one, says even at the most stressful times during her extraordinary journey it has only helped rekindle her passion for becoming a doctor.


Best regards,

Fadlo R. Khuri, MD


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