Study abroad in Beirut is a game changer. Almost everything that makes up life in Beirut for international students will play into the most inevitable feature of studying abroad: culture shock. Our understanding of the world is shaped by the culture we grew up in, and when we spend time in a new and different culture, our perceptions are disrupted. Disruptions are okay. Surprises can be wonderful. Both will always be around, on every path, just as smoke surrounds fire.
Studying abroad in Beirut is an opportunity to consider—and perhaps alter—how we respond to disruptions. It’s an exercise in trying to find balance before finally realizing that balance isn’t static; it’s active, and it can be found by shifting how we move through challenges to our norms and unexpected lessons. Students who study in Beirut wield the aftermath of their culture shock to evolve. They widen their scope of understanding about the world and they reset how they move through it. As humans we adapt, not just to survive, but with hopes to thrive. Martial artist and actor Bruce Lee said, “Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water.” Students who study abroad in Beirut become water. They are a testament to the courage it takes to surrender to disruption. They come to learn that true stability is not correlated with rigidity and control, but strength and flexibility.
If expecting the unexpected resonates with you, Beirut is the city of all cities to light up your brain, let surprise tether you to the moment, and see for yourself the power of wonder and awe that comes with exploration. Here are five unexpected surprises students have experienced while studying abroad in Beirut:
5 unexpected takeaways from study abroad in Beirut
1. Culture Off the Beaten Path
While preparing to study abroad at the American University of Beirut (AUB), life-long sneaker fanatic Anders Schans held few expectations, if any, for Beirut’s sneaker scene. The Dane, however, ended up pleasantly surprised by Beirut’s concentrated sneaker community. Visiting stores like The Good Life Space in Sodeco and Pop Up Concepts in Achrafieh became part of his weekly routine.
Sneakers aren’t exactly the first thing that one associates with study abroad in Beirut, and yet glimpses into the culture can be found in the underground sneaker lore, because culture is in the underground of everything. For curious students like Anders, Beirut is fertile ground to pursue and explore passions that make you feel good about being alive, because if there’s anything the Lebanese know, it’s how to live. The sneaker communities where Anders shared his passion stoked his interest in Lebanon’s economy, and how fashion has been shaped in Lebanon. He wondered and continues to investigate how certain brands reach certain countries, and which brands have meaning for people and why.
or Anders, sneakers aren’t just footwear, they’re about people and choices. They are a surprising way to bring people together. They are a galvanizing medium that allow him to both relish the details and make sense of big data. His advice for sneaker heads, but also for those interested in stories about Beirut, is to visit the weekend market Souk Al-Ahad. “Here, I found some of my rarest pieces. Physical manifestations of trends from another time that found its way to a market under a highway bridge in my favorite city in the world.”
2. The Lights Go Out Daily
The power infrastructure in Lebanon, which once provided 24 hour electricity, was mostly decimated during the country’s civil war. To meet the power needs of a growing population, repairs and rebuilding await. In the meantime, because the electricity grid cannot keep up with the demand, the Lebanese government schedules power cuts three hours a day in Beirut, and often more outside the city. Schools, homes, businesses, hospitals and the like all use generators to compensate, and individuals even have apps to plan around the cuts. It’s common to be in a classroom, an office, a restaurant, or a bank, and watch as everything around you shuts down for a moment. You’ll know you’ve assimilated into Lebanese culture when, like the Lebanese, you do not break stride when curtailed by an inconvenience.
In the meantime, Nazlee Radboy, an AUB Media Studies
major, suggests that getting stuck in the elevator can actually be an impetus for planning your day. “In order to navigate scheduled power outages, I started paying closer attention to the time, ultimately resulting in my meticulous daily timetables I have found absolutely necessary. These same outages provide relief from tension I hardly realize is there, as the routine blackouts are moments to recharge and take advantage of pauses in the day. And instead of my wasteful drying appliances doing the job, I conserve energy by letting the warm Mediterranean sun dry my clothes—and dishes and hair.”
*The facilities and dormitories at AUB are all equipped with powerful generators that minimize power cuts and make them negligible.
3. The Wrestlification of Gentrification
Saiman Chow postures that “Cities change, of course they do; but what matters is for whom they change, and at what cost.” Corporate land grabs, vacant luxury apartments, and shrinking public beaches mark Beirut with stains of gentrification. And yet living in Beirut is an opportunity to visit restaurant mainstays like Le Chef (an Anthony Bourdain favorite) and the long-standing and beloved ice cream parlour Hanna Mitri. Or to take walking tours of a city home to exquisite architecture and looming question marks about how to best revitalize the city.
Middle East study abroad programs like AUB partner with the community to dive into these questions, and to protect the city’s cultural diversity. The university’s Masters in Urban Planning, Policy, and Urban Design
and The Neighborhood Initiative uphold “the principles of livability, sustainability, and equity.” Community mapping, investigating coastal development, and photo essays to document street life are only a fraction of the engagement.
AUB alum Ola Alhaj Hasan finds that there are a lot of interesting observations to make in neighborhoods close to AUB such as Ain Mraiseh and Hamra, with streets like Bliss, Sadat, Jeanne D’Arc, Makdissi, and Sidani. “Very old residential and commercial buildings tell stories of Beirut’s past, standing besides new businesses that seek to serve university students. I used to enjoy wandering into the older shops to ask their owners about how life in the neighbourhood has changed over the years. I also loved noting the contrast between the different architectural facades of adjacent buildings and I often took photographs to document the ironic contrasts. Whenever I paid attention to the details, walking in the city felt like being in a time-machine”.
4. It’s More Than Learning Arabic
The reasons for studying in Beirut go beyond learning Arabic. Study abroad is couched in academia. Most study abroad returnees, though, don’t come back raving about the classes, they talk about what they learned outside of the classroom. They reflect on what blew their minds in the periphery, and what those surprises revealed about human nature; mostly, their own.
They travel to explore distant family ties. They choose a city that’s tired of hearing how paradoxical it is to learn about what the paradoxes are. They crave a perspective that runs counter to the driving narratives they’ve learned about the Middle East (those that they suspect to be incomplete and lacking historical context).They’re drawn to a place where spontaneity is a mindset.
While no student heads to Beirut knowing what they will learn about themselves, they trust that studying abroad in the Middle East will spark dormant curiosities and provide opportunities to test strength and flexibility. They are confident that they will leave equipped with the tools to navigate anything.
The prolific author and professor of literature Joseph Campbell said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” The reality is that most students select choose to study abroad in Lebanon because they seek the experience of being alive, and they understand that leaving their comfort zone is a way to do that.
5. Your Limits Will be Challenged
When you get to Beirut and unpack your belongings, unburden yourself by also unpacking your conceptual baggage. Know that you will, at some points, feel wildly overwhelmed. When you hit a wall take time to pause and process. You are not a machine. You are not a human doing. You are a human being. Use this time in a new country as an opportunity to play around with the elasticity of your limits. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel, while also considering the difference between reacting and responding, and spontaneity versus recklessness. Rely on others for help. You will need it. No one can do this alone.
And the friends, mentors, familiar faces, and strangers that will be part of your life in Beirut will awaken in you things you might not have otherwise perceived. And usually, beyond any sort of lesson, there’s something to be said about knowing that the world is full of surprises, and by being out in it, we can always surprise ourselves.
Next steps to studying abroad in Beirut
Don't start packing just yet. There are a few items on your study abroad to do list to check off first!
- Decide where to go. Figuring out where to study abroad in Lebanon isn’t easy. The American University of Beirut? Somewhere further flung? Don't let anything hold you back—choose a place that's right for you.
- Your major courses or something more fun and experiential? You don't only have to take classes that pertain to your major back home (though it never hurts to knock out some credits towards graduation). Look at your course options and decide what combination of required classes and just-for-fun-or-because-you-want-to-learn-it classes are out there. Choose from Arabic, literature, the sciences, psychology, and more!
- Choose from the best study abroad programs. Pay attention to past participants’ reviews, program/university reputation, location, and your ease of getting credits. Some schools or providers may even provide contact info for student ambassadors or past international students if you want the REAL dirt. Here’s our guide to choosing between study abroad programs.
- Plan your finances. Sort out funding before you go to afford daily essentials and splurge in travel (in addition to program costs and airfare). Do your research to have an idea of how much your study abroad program will cost. Check out scholarships for study abroad in Lebanon too!
- Talk to your home university. Getting all your ducks in a row is largely dependent on what your home university requires. Talk to a study abroad advisor or the equivalent at your university to see what choices are available to you.
You’re ready to study abroad in Beirut!
Studying abroad presents infinite possibilities. It pries the lid off of that messy jar of what we think we know about the world, and about ourselves. We study abroad because we don’t know what’s on the other side. It’s about being ready for something to happen that we do not yet understand. If we surrender to the surprise, to not knowing, then in that space we can be free to genuinely explore, and to transform the way we see life, and live life.
This article was written by American University of Beirut and written in collaboration with alumni students. Home to 8,000 students from around the globe, AUB opens the door to a transformative educational experience, offering more than 120 programs leading to bachelor's, master's, MD, and PhD degrees. In 2016, AUB celebrated its’ 150th year as a pioneer and leader of education in the Middle East.