American Univesity of Beirut

Kanjana Ilango - Program Participant

​Out of all the schools around the world you could choose, why the Middle East? Why the American University of Beirut?

Towards the end of high school, my dad was offered an opportunity to work in Lebanon. Having never been to the Middle East before, I did a bit of research and was surprised to discover that Lebanon was nothing like I thought it would have been. I also found out that AUB was actually one of the top universities in the region! I knew that I would never have another opportunity to study at another top university in other countries, so I decided to move to Beirut together with my parents.​

What surprised you the most about Beirut?

 On my car ride from the airport to our new apartment, I could already tell that Beirut had its own charm. For one, the people were very welcoming, something which I did not experience in other countries. Furthermore, I was so ready to practice my French, but most people spoke in English which I did not see coming. Also in some parts of Beirut, a lot of the pre-war buildings were maintained and converted into apartments.​
The way modern buildings blended in perfectly with older buildings was a first for me, and still intrigues me to this day. Finally, the Beirut weather was something unexpected. I had no idea that Lebanon had four seasons! Beirut’s winter was finger numbingly cold, even though temperatures rarely went below 10 degrees celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). Students accustomed to warm weather should just be prepared with thick winter coat and all stude​nts should be ready with a sturdy umbrella!

What kind of students study in Beirut?

Whilst the majority of students are from the Middle East region, I had the chance to meet students from various parts of the world! During my time there, I made friends with students from all over Europe, the United States, and even a student all the way from Japan! The best thing about studying at AUB was that I never felt left out, despite being the only Malaysian there. The students at AUB are very friendly, and they are very eager to get to know the international students.

What are some memorable lessons that you learned from other cultures?

Learning how to be more accepting is the most memorable lesson I learned from other cultures. When we grow up learning that one particular way of doing things is the right way, it is often difficult to change that mindset. But after interacting with many cultures, I learned to accept these differences and learned that despite our differences, we have all gathered at one place for one purpose: to gain experiences and study abroad.

In the end, I feel that our differences actually made us closer as friends. I have been around different cultures for the majority of my childhood and young adult life. My best friend in school was Korean. She invited me to her house for lunch with her family quite often, where I learned the types of cuisine Korean people eat in addition to Korean traditions and etiquette.
When I moved to Beirut, and was invited to dinners, I always took a step back and observed what the hosts were doing. The Lebanese people were always so happy when I followed traditional ways. This was my way of respect for other cultures and traditions.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Lebanon has something for everyone. Nature, archaeological sites, and definitely the hustle and bustle of a modern day city. I took advantage of my opportunity there and I tried to do everything. I went hiking for the first time in my life, and despite trailing behind the rest of the group, trekking through the snow and ending with a picnic at the top overlooking an amazing view was worth it!

As a history buff, I loved visiting the archaeological sites. There is something invigorating about standing in a place of history, imagining how it would have been like living at the site thousands of years ago. Some of the sites that blew my mind, were Baalbeck, Aanjar in the Bekaa Valley, Saida Castle, and also Beiteddine, once home to the Ottoman Governors, where structures during the Ottoman times were very much intact.
Sunset in Qadish Valley

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had ventured more out into the country. Tourist spots are great, but the real gems are always the best kept secret. Lebanon is known for its valleys and mountains. I do wish that I joined on more hiking trips and ski trips to these areas. The beaches in Lebanon are beautiful, but sadly they have become polluted over the years.
I remember one summer, my friends and I planned a trip to the beach in Byblos, home to one of the most popular beach resorts. However, with our poor sense of direction we ended up quite far from our destination, and ended up at a very remote beach. That discovery was one of our best mistakes as the beach was very beautiful and serene. Looking back, I wish we had done more trips to explore unknown parts of Lebanon.

How has your time abroad impacted your life?

Being abroad allowed me to get out of my bubble and be more independent. I also used to be very scared of trying new things and going to new places, but that all changed once I studied abroad. Being in a country ripe with political upheaval made me realize that if people could go about their normal lives in this situation, why can’t I do the same? After all, you really only have one chance at life and that is it.

What advice do you have for prospective students?

Get out of your comfort zone! Immerse yourself in the culture. There is a certain comfort in hanging around students from your country, but being the only Malaysian in AUB forced to me to befriend locals and other international students, which made me learn not only about Lebanese culture, but also the cultures of the other students.
Two girls posing together on a hike​​

What was unique about studying political science in Beirut?

It was being able to experience what I was studying. It was a little less than a year after I settled down in Beirut when the Syrian Civil War broke out, and the repercussions of the war could clearly be seen in Beirut. Not only that, I was also able to talk to Syrian students to get their own view on issues, something that seems pretty absent from view.
I also had the chance to visit the refugee settlements and interview some of the refugees as well, which also gave me a more rounded understanding of how the crisis is impacting and displacing so many people. Granted, war and security are just a couple topic of many in political science, but studying in Beirut gave me the opportunity to think in a different way, and be able to see the other side of the story which is most often neglected, reductionist, and misunderstood in the larger narrative.

Why do you think it is important to study in the Middle East?

Nowadays with the media portraying the Middle East in such negative light, I think it is important to visit the Middle East to know that is not true. I realized I didn’t want to take anything at face value without experiencing it myself. For example, I was always under the impression that the Middle East was dangerous and unstable and since Lebanon had gone through years of civil war, it would have been run down. I was very wrong!
Even though there are pockets of instability in the Middle East, upon visiting Syria (before the civil war), Jordan, and Turkey, I was shocked to find out how modern these countries were and also life went on as usual. In Lebanon, especially, everyone went about their daily lives and people are very cheerful!

While no country is perfect—which holds very true in Lebanon—the people taught me that there are more important things in life, such as how to live it fully.
Despite having gone through decades of war, people there always focused on the more positive things in life and living in the moment. This is the most important lesson from Lebanon that I carry with me and living this way is how I can share it with those I meet throughout my life.​

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