By Fadi Salahedin
Imagine this with me:
A young person with rising dreams and aspirations, raw potential, untapped talents, and a fervor for life and accomplishment. An unquenchable appetite for education and learning much beyond the firm bounds of a war-torn country, and an abysmal reality. Yet, an unwavering drive to fulfil this appetite despite the war, despite the safety concerns when going to school, and despite all the systematic injustices that I cannot start to count. A young person who wants to use education as a force to change this reality.
That is my story.
I grew up in Syria and joined AUB in 2019 to pursue my undergraduate studies as a recipient of the MEPI- Tomorrow's Leaders Scholarship Award. This scholarship, and this institution, have simply changed my life, and forged who I am today. I got the chance to access a world-class education, to grow in a nurturing environment, and continuously receive the tools I need to learn and expand my capacities.
This sounds amazing, doesn't it? But this is not all. The most valuable gift this institution has given me is more deeply engraved than transferable skills, theoretical and technical knowledge, and an employable profile. First, AUB has liberated me, by being an oasis where, in the middle of a turbulent and increasingly oppressive reality, I can freely express all aspects of my identity, thoughts, and ideas. The worst thing growing up in a war-torn country is the oppressive nature of war that eats away at your capacity to express yourself freely. Second, AUB has continuously demonstrated that education can truly be used as a transformative force for affecting change in our community. I believe these two gifts are what uniquely distinguishes this institution, and “the most essential qualities and practices that AUB must persist in adhering to and pursuing" for generations to come.
AUB's commitment to freedom of thought and expression has been at the forefront and at the heart of this institution's legacy since its founding. This commitment is more needed now than ever. In a reality when we are faced with a plurality of truths and at the same time with ferocious forces that attempt to silence the voices that differ; the need for an educational institution that not only educates but also liberates becomes increasingly more pressing. In a time when people like Shireen Abu Akleh, Salman Rushdie, and activists all over the world are being silenced with brute force, we need more free minds and liberated intellectuals to challenge the status quo. AUB is where these free minds can flourish. As we live in a region battling against the diseases of totalitarianism, colonialism, and a turbulent economic, social, and political environment, we need to claim ownership over our personhood and thoughts, and we need a space to express them urgently. AUB has been a space to do this, to give voice and power to the indigenous peoples of the region, and to foster a healthy dialogue amongst us. As we graduate from AUB we carry the value and ability to accept the other and seek hearing their point of view. With the mass spread of false information, and social media algorithms that feed us with what we want to hear and show us what we want to see, the only way to reflect on our biases is having a dialogue of equals with those who are different. It is our responsibility to reflect on these biases as we embark on our journey to be leaders, decision makers, and innovators in all sectors of life.
I will not elaborate on this point further, but I would like to highlight why nurturing freedom of thought and expression is particularly important for us as students. Freedom is a dynamic and an open-ended concept, a metaphor of the limitlessness of human aspiration. In academia, we need it to challenge and push the boundaries of our existing knowledge. At AUB, I learned to tell my professors: “I disagree" not for the sake of disagreeing, but to express an idea or challenge a notion, and my disagreement was always welcome and encouraged. This is a privilege I am certain most of the Arab youth do not have access to; consequently, it is a precious responsibility. This capacity for accepting the opposite other is only a manifestation of an institution-wide value. This is a strength that AUB needs to build on, facing the rising of cancel culture, groupthink, and an abrasive hostility towards the other. It is the only way to prepare the next generation of leaders who are then courageous and empowered to say “I disagree" and to push against the mainstream, create innovative solutions, and dare to transform.
Furthermore, as a young scholar who aspires to be a researcher in social psychology, I believe AUB has a great responsibility today more than ever to produce relevant research. Research, at the core, is a manifestation of freedom of thought. It is our chance to have a claim to modernity and knowledge. We need to produce research that is representative of our community and that speaks to global challenges and local needs in the age of rapid technological advances and globalization. I have seen glimpses of this in the work of the Isam Fares Institute, the Asfari Institute, and the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service, that have done phenomenal work in utilizing academia to serve our silently-suffering communities. However, we still have a long way to go, and AUB stands as a beacon of hope guiding these efforts.
This leads me to the second gift that AUB has given me, and the practice that constitutes a pillar of this institution's mission, which is the use of education as a transformative tool to serve the communities of the region. Throughout my years at AUB, I continuously worked with the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service, where most of my informal learning took place. The recent performance indicators highlight that since 2015, more than 13,000 students engaged in volunteering opportunities and community service internships. Thirteen thousand! A phenomenal number and a testimony to the drive and commitment of our student body to be a force of change. Encouraging active civic engagement and integrating it in our curriculum is an important feat that AUB needs to continue supporting for multiple reasons. First and foremost, because we owe it to our community, and it is our responsibility to use our knowledge, skills, and talents to serve it. Second, civic engagement educates learners for uncertainty and resilience, by harnessing important skills and attributes such as communication, collaboration, problem solving, innovation, critical thinking, adaptability, and social responsibility. All of which are much needed to embark on our journeys in an increasingly uncertain future.
AUB has been a force of change and liberation and has served and continues to serve the peoples of the region. Now the responsibility is even greater to include the different community members –especially those who cannot afford an AUB education— and to nurture freedom and plant the seeds of civic responsibility. As higher education becomes more global, we need to go back to these values so we can stand authentically and courageously in the face of conformity, rising global challenges, and local conflicts, and never lose sight of our community needs. Achieving AUB's mission is a continuous collaborative effort and a responsibility to have life and have it sustainably more abundant.
Congratulations Fadi, we wish you more success and a greater sum of achievements!