BEIRUT: A new class of graduates left the American University of Beirut’s campus with diplomas in hand over the weekend, when even a weak job market and an uncertain future were not enough to dampen the joy of the occasion. Thousands of white chairs lined the American University of Beirut’s Greenfield Saturday as the university celebrated its 145th graduation commencement for undergraduates. Graduate and honorary degrees were awarded Friday evening.
Families and friends gathered to watch the 1,531 graduates who donned black robes and caps. The graduates also had colored sashes on indicating which school they were graduating from.
Smiles were ubiquitous among both graduates and attendees, as the ceremony’s buoyant mood of the present overlooked the oncoming concerns for many students of finding a job or continuing their studies in Lebanon or abroad.
Many of the graduates that spoke to The Daily Star had already figured out their plans for the immediate future. One of those was Tarek Tabaja, 23, a graduate in chemical engineering who already has a job as a safety engineer. His fellow graduate, Tarek Rashdan, also 23, has already begun working in Jordan as a construction engineer.
Some students will carry on into graduate school programs. Farah Abi Mosleh, 21, will start a new graduate program in August at AUB related to her undergraduate degree in agriculture. Ibrahim Saleh, 21, is starting medical school, but unlike Abi Mosleh, Saleh will travel abroad to England to continue his studies.
“There are better opportunities for me,” Saleh said about continuing his studies at Birmingham University. He insisted, however, that he was going abroad simply because he thought it gave him a better chance at a successful career and not due to any concerns over his safety.
“It’s not related to security. Lebanon is amazing.”
While students were optimistic, parents veered toward caution.
“I hope [my daughter] will get a chance in Lebanon, but it is difficult because there are no jobs and no opportunities,” said Imad Kishawi, whose daughter graduated with a degree in arts. Kishawi lives in Greece, but his daughter returned to Lebanon for the chance to “live in an Arab country.”
Nader Abi Shadid could not conceal his pride in his daughter, a graduate with a degree in biology, as he broke out into a smile. Having already been accepted the graduate medical program at AUB, Abi Shadid’s daughter has four more years before she needs to make any decisions regarding her career. Her father, who himself graduated from AUB 30 years ago, said he would not be able to make any predictions until then.
“We can’t decide now. In four years, we will see the situation,” he said, adding that he was comfortable with his daughter’s decision to stay in Lebanon. “We are from the people who decided to stay in Lebanon and now it is much better than before.”
AUB’s President Peter Dorman addressed the crowd and hailed his university’s education as “Second to none in the Middle East.”
Rami Khouri, director of AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, was Friday night’s keynote speaker. He noted the parallel in timelines between recent events in Tunisia and the class of 2014. Tunisia’s uprising began in December 2010 and its constitution was signed in January 2014.
Khouri addressed recent developments in the Middle East and said that just as Arabs had demonstrated for “abstract nouns like dignity and justice,” so have AUB students demonstrated for their values.
He referred to students’ successful push for dialogue with the AUB administration following attempts to raise tuition earlier this year.
“We must not lose sight of the underlying values,” Khouri told the graduating class.
A day earlier, Doorman bestowed honorary degrees on three Arab pioneers who all enjoyed a connection to AUB.
Renowned Lebanese sculptor and painter Saloua Raouda Choucair’s daughter accepted her degree on her behalf, recalling how the seed of her mother’s aesthetic theory was planted by an AUB professor with whom she was taking a course while working at the library.
Palestinian entrepreneur and AUB alumnus Samih Darwazah, who founded the multibillion dollar Hikma Pharmaceuticals, recalled fondly his own days on campus, where he met and fell in love with his wife.
Keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient Yusuf Hannun, an award-winning molecular biologist and director of Stony Brook University Cancer Center in New York, also credited his success to the education he received at AUB
“Education liberates,” he told the assembled graduates and families. “Of course education liberates financially. ... But education more importantly liberates the mind. You start to take possession of your own thoughts. You start to understand the present world around you and the world that preceded you. No wonder this is called liberal education.”