American Univesity of Beirut

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

Let me start by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and New Year! Everyone at AUB deserves a rest after a term of such intensity and accomplishment. It was topped by a remarkable Giving Day—held on Founders Day—which outperformed all expectations for new donors, funds raised, and overall participation. Thank you all for making it such a resounding success.

Maysa Jalbout's challenge to universities

Founders Day is a special event in AUB's calendar, one when we remember with pride and gratitude the vision of the founding faculty members who on December 3, 1866 took this university's first steps on its long and eventful journey. We celebrate with a bipartite ceremony in Assembly Hall whose two speakers—a student essayist and a distinguished guest—bridge the gap between youth and experience, potential and its fulfillment. This year's essay competition winner was Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a remarkable and committed young man from Algeria studying on a comprehensive MEPI-TL scholarship, who credits his very survival to AUB. He advocated with passion AUB's values of freedom of speech, civic engagement and inclusivity, as the path to advance its much-needed regional leadership.

Dima Mehdi, majoring in political studies and public administration, won third prize. Winners of​ the second prize were Ubah Ali and Claudette Igiraneza, both the recipients of scholarship support from the MasterCard Foundation​

I would like to commend and express our profound appreciation to the Founders Day essay selection committee, chaired by Dr. David Landes of the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Victor Araman from the Olayan School of Business, Dr. Maya Abou Zeid from the Department of Civil Engineering in the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering, and Dr. Greg Burris from the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Our distinguished guest speaker was the founding CEO of the Abdallah Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education, Maysa Jalbout, whose address on the future of universities amid manifold challenges was a tour de force of vision and clarity. She spent her first 16 years of life as the child of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, but used education and the opportunities that came her way to become one of the most influential Arab women, leading a $1 billion endowment that aims to educate 15,000 young people in 10 years. In just two years of Al-Ghurair Foundation support at AUB, 87 students have already benefited from full scholarships in STEM subjects, making an indelible mark on our community. 

While Al-Ghurair steps up to play its part, Ms. Jalbout left no doubt that the higher education sector faces a stark future, and must effect system-wide changes to remain viable and relevant. Otherwise universities risk obsolescence, as they compete for a narrowing pool of resources, with rising costs, and accelerating technological advances that will transform how our societies evolve, not only in positive ways. She called time on the pursuit of rankings and reputations—in the elite universities especially—based on a mentality of scarcity (or who is turned away) rather than one of abundance (who is given access). Under the current model, only the most privileged will survive and thrive, an abysmal prospect when—as Ms. Jalbout reminded us—the combined endowment of the richest three US universities already equals the combined GDP of the world's poorest 46 countries.

Yet she was clear—and who can argue—that “there has never been a more exciting time for universities to have a greater impact on the world." To realize this vision, AUB and its peers must pursue explicit goals: Innovation to solve the critical challenges of our time; integrating technology (and funding) to offer high-quality inclusive education to the broadest spectrum of underrepresented and excluded communities to tackle society-wide skills shortages; and leadership to deeply embed our humanity, our ethics, our critical thinking, and our values into education, to guide society towards a future of untold opportunities and existential dangers. These goals are achievable, and closely map our VITAL strategy, discussed in town hall meetings earlier this month, which I shall detail in my first President's Perspective after the winter break. ​

Supporting student wellbeing

In order to foster an inclusive, humanistic academic community that can create a better future, it is essential we look after the emotional and physical wellbeing of our students. The Student Wellness Outreach (SWO) office is becoming an increasingly effective agency towards this end, nurturing a healthy, supportive, and caring environment for students to learn and grow.

Supervised by Wellness Outreach Officer Remy Elias, SWO is part of the Office of Student Affairs and works closely with other units, like Accessible Education, the Counseling Center, and Student Activities as well as partners on campus and at AUBMC to raise awareness of the resources available for one-to-one support for any student undergoing social, psychological, or academic difficulties. It also provides a safe space for sharing stories and experiences as a group. Subjects of SWO talks and workshops are student-led, and range from time management and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to more sensitive issues like sexual health and substance abuse.

A new initiative this term has been the introduction of the Peer Support Center, where trained student volunteers are on hand to talk and give advice about any issue, equipping all students with a non-judgmental and non-stigmatizing perspective, to encourage mutual support and acceptance, while simultaneously looking after their own mental health. Ms. Elias is always on the lookout for volunteers, whether students, faculty, or staff who want to join in building this empathetic environment.

It is vital for our community to be able to talk openly and break taboos that society around us is uncomfortable discussing. Discovering we are not alone, that we are all part of a wider community of imperfect human beings, can be an important therapeutic first step. In a problem-plagued country like Lebanon, and in a pressurized environment like AUB, it is particularly necessary, as people can develop hard shells that prevent us connecting at the human, emotional level. The positive, shared experience and values, which SWO engenders, are a great pathway toward a more caring, sharing community. ​

Celebrating young innovators

Our community is brimming with new entrepreneurial projects hatched by students and fresh alumni, all hoping to be the “next big thing." Many, but not all, ventures are technology-based, and focus on solving challenges in our fast-changing world. One such project, aiming at the STEM gender gap, is All Girls Code, a program to encourage girls to explore STEM fields and support women already enrolled in STEM programs, founded by CCE students Aya Mouallem and Maya Moussa. Startup MaktabaTech aims to reinstate children's love of reading through an augmented reality-based mobile application bringing their favorite books to life. Founders Sara Hammoud and colleagues were the only all-female undergraduate team to reach the final stage of the MIT Media Lab Refugee Learning Accelerator.

WonderEd, founded by A'laa Chbaro, works with preschoolers to teach them robotics and how to be active creators of digital content. She got a boost by winning the 2018 Darwazah Student Innovation Contest. Another standout from this competition was DeLOC, from engineering graduate student Waddah Malaeb, which is a novel lab-on-chip (LOC)/bio-chip model that aims to investigate the effect of various drugs on ductal cancer. Competition prizes can be vital in overcoming the obstacle of finding seed money. Spike, a mobile assistant that helps people better manage their diabetes, has won cash prizes all over the world. AUB alumna Michelle Ragy (BBA '18) runs its marketing while engineering student Tarek Tohme is hardware architect.

Mentorship and support is available from OSB's Darwazah Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Center for Research and Innovation (CRInn), and the final year project accelerator program at MSFEA. Fallound creator Stefano Fallaha sought help from CRInn after getting $125,000 in startup funding from Qatar. This app helps users find the perfect audio podcasts for driving, according to personal taste, journey time, and other requirements.​

Engineering student Haytham Dbouk is working with CRInn to develop his final-year project into a business. Pro-Shield aims to limit wasted energy from solar water heaters and was one of two AUB winners of the Hult Prize national competition semi-finals held in May 2018. The other wa​s Yalla Bus, developed by a group of students fed up with parking problems in Hamra and the nightmare of Beirut traffic. Yalla Bus is a platform to make public transportation in Lebanon a viable option, bringing bus times and routes to users from GPS-tracked vehicles.

The city is not the only locale for innovation. A group of University Scholarship Program students started training local women to produce and market apple chips in the village of Batloun, generating income and reducing food waste. Go Baladi, which participated in the Darwazah Center's Startup Acceleration Practicum, is producing organic goat dairy products, which are now on the market. Of course, this is only a selection of the amazing ideas and rising stars among our students and young graduates. Stay tuned in the coming year—we expect more great things to come from our remarkably innovative, resilient and creative students.

Best regards,​

Fadlo R. Khuri, MD

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