The American University of Beirut conferred four honorary doctorate degrees and 514 graduate diplomas at the University’s 148th commencement ceremony held on Friday, June 2. A total of 16 doctoral, 403 master’s, and 95 medical degrees were awarded to the graduate class of 2017.
In his opening speech, President Fadlo R. Khuri spoke about the power of inevitable doubt and introspection in effecting meaningful change and service for the common good. He urged the graduates, “always keep an eye on the community you serve and understand how your own skills can best create a lasting and meaningful impact.”
“It is in these moments of doubt that a person often finds their purpose and their vocation,” said President Khuri. “It is the most important decisions that are usually preceded by moments of self-reflection. In these moments, allow yourself to weigh your options, and seize first those options that benefit you and the larger community, equally.”
President Khuri paid tribute to the late alumnus, trustee, and visionary partner of AUB Maroun Semaan as a deep believer in the power of philanthropy. He also explained how “doubt became the bridge to empathy and to service” for this year’s recipients of AUB’s honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters: scientist Huda Akil; philanthropist and former first lady Mouna Haraoui; music composer, producer, and performer Simon Shaheen; and best-selling author and activist Ahdaf Soueif. The four honorands were recognized as models of engaged citizenship, innovation, service, and excellence.
“I would like to salute the parents and families who facilitated the means for you to attain higher education from a prestigious university, AUB,” said Mouna Haraoui who expressed in her acceptance speech how she felt further empowered by the recently bestowed honorary degree to persevere in her contributions to Lebanon’s wellbeing. “You are the future of your country. I do hope that part of your skills will be invested in improving the state of humanity,” she told the graduates.
To Grammy-nominated Simon Shaheen, music was the way to thank AUB for the doctorate degree bestowed upon him. He captivated the audience with a special violin performance after he encouraged the students to use their “unique talent and education to build their own bridges” between cultures as he has done through his music. “Today marks the end of your college days and the beginning of something new and exciting,” he said. “I encourage everyone here to be brave, bold, and fearless as this might be your defining moment.”
Witness to social movements seeking a decent life for all, Ahdaf Soueif said that AUB graduates are “excellently equipped” to make a difference in a world facing “a battle between those who want a decent life for everyone… and those who can only comprehend narrow interests.”
“AUB itself is an inspiration, growing, changing, excelling despite contradictions and fault lines, maneuvering, battening down and blossoming out; a model of the university as part of civil society, engaged with it and working for it, drawing energy from it and serving it,” she added.
In her keynote speech at the ceremony, world-renowned expert on the neurobiology of emotions, Dr. Huda Akil, defined what she calls “active resilience” as “the art of fighting the odds and emerging not only whole, but triumphant and joyful,” the result of internal resources to cope with stress and become stronger. Akil’s research team found that the biological landscaping or rewiring of the human brains to develop resilience, a process called neuroplasticity, is enabled by growth factors. She argued that three factors harness this positive remodeling of the brain: social support; “emotional algebra” or balancing positive and negative emotions so the positive predominates; and reaching beyond oneself to help others.
“Being engaged is not only the right thing to do, it is good for your brain,” said Dr. Akil. “It will increase your own growth factors, and shore up your own active resilience. It is the joyful and uplifting thing to do. It elevates you from the ordinary to the extraordinary.”
Graduate student speaker was Merilin Ekzarkova, who graduated with a degree of Master of Arts in English Literature. She shared what “AUB, the one constant in our lives so far,” taught her during her five-year university education about the choice to do good. Pointing out the size and breadth of student engagement at AUB in helping various communities in Lebanon, in and out of class, and students’ choice to undergo the arduous journey of education at AUB, Ekzarkova had advice for her colleagues:
“To make a choice takes courage, but it also entails a responsibility,” she said. “I ask you not to forget that you always have a choice, don’t be afraid to make it, and remember that you are all good people and because of that you will make this world better for those who will sit in your places in the future.”