BEIRUT: More Lebanese university students than ever before are enrolling in exchange programs to travel the world and take advantage of educational opportunities abroad. The American University of Beirut, Lebanese American University and Université Saint-Joseph all offer study abroad programs with the aim of enriching students’ college experience, according to LAU’s Dina Abdul Rahman study abroad coordinator. LAU’s exchange program has grown fourfold since 2010.
Yves Daher, a USJ student, said studying abroad in France was a life-changing experience.
“I will mostly miss meeting people from different backgrounds, and doing things that are not available in Lebanon, like going on spontaneous weekend trips to the south of France,” Daher said. “The experience is absolutely enriching and I encourage everyone to go abroad, even for one semester.”
Karim Jaroudi, an economics major at LAU, was also able to visit seven European countries during his stint in Paris. “I couldn’t have done this if it weren’t for the exchange program,” he said.
In 2010, LAU began to offer exchange programs as part of its new mission to make its students future leaders. According to Abdul Rahman, studying abroad allows students to benefit both on a personal and academic level and develop leadership skills.
“We offer exchange programs for students to get international experience, exposure to new cultures, and mostly so that students can have a break from academic routine,” Abdul Rahman said.
She added that the majority chose to study in France but others had gone to Spain, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Germany and the United Kingdom.
To some, exchange programs are the perfect opportunity to live in a country that is foreign and unique.
“I was admitted to Sciences Po, Paris, and to Warsaw School of Economics, but I chose the latter because living in Poland is a one-time occasion and I knew that if I chose France instead, I would be missing on a great opportunity,” said Paul Succar, an economics student at LAU.
Others hope to take advantage of the academic excellence that is on offer abroad.
Christian Massabni, an engineering student at the AUB, said his friends’ experiences prompted him to study abroad.
“If it weren’t for my friends who had previously gone to Berkeley, I wouldn’t have gone myself,” he said. “They were so helpful and told us that in only a few months, they learned more than what they could learn in three years in Lebanon.”
But Abdul Rahman warns that studying abroad isn’t a holiday.
“Few students know about the challenges and the skills it takes to live abroad,” she said. “It is common to find students having difficulties to adapt at first, but they all manage throughout their stay.”
Soha Merhej, a business major at LAU, found it difficult to adapt in Paris, as she wasn’t fluent in French.
“At first, I felt really homesick when simple day-to-day tasks appeared so challenging, like getting street directions,” she said. “It didn’t help that the French were always rude and frustrated.”
But in the end, Soha said she was grateful that her experience taught her to be more confident, more independent and stronger.
Nonetheless, many students prefer to stay in their comfort zone and finish their college years in Lebanon, without any distractions.
“I didn’t think there was enough time to go study abroad since my degree needs only three years for completion. Plus, I’ll have the chance to study abroad for my master’s,” said Tracy, an economics student at AUB.
Exchange programs can be expensive, especially for those who chose pricey European capitals.
“In total I spent about 1,800 euros [$2,400] between rent and leisure,” Jaroudi said.
Nevertheless, Jaroudi explains that there are cheap ways to travel, which not only allowed him to save money but also made the experience more exciting, such as taking the bus to a neighboring country and staying in hostels rather than hotels.
For students unable to afford to go abroad, the ERASMUS program offers scholarships. Available for students studying at USJ, LAU and the AUB, the grants provide a monthly allowance of around $1,300, health insurance and a round-trip plane ticket.
“It’s a good thing that I got the ERASMUS scholarship at USJ,” Daher said. “All my weekend trips were financed through the allowance coming from ERASMUS and it made it much easier to have fun.”
But for Massabni, the most important parts of studying abroad were taking a break from the political and economic drama in Lebanon and experiencing a new kind of life.