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Volume 46, Number 6November/December 1995

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'We Dared to Venture'

Written by Ghassan Ghosn
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

When Eli and Sarah Smith arrived in Beirut in 1834, there were no public schools for girls in the city. Indeed, there were none in the Ottoman Empire, of which Lebanon was then a part: Education for girls was a family matter, and parents who chose to have their daughters educated arranged to have them taught at home.

This foreclosed the possibility of girls' schooling for poor families, and Sarah Smith "lost no time in getting at the task" of changing that fact, wrote Donald Roberts in his Beirut College for Women: A Short History. With backing from the American Presbyterian Mission for Syria and Lebanon, Smith opened what was known simply as madrasat al-banat, or "the girls' school," possibly the first elementary school for girls in the empire. It was to have far-reaching effects.

In 1862 the school became a secondary school and acquired a name: It was called the Beirut Female Seminary; in 1868 the name was changed to the American School for Girls (ASG).

At the end of World War I, French rule replaced Ottoman rule in Beirut, and in the post-war years—as in much of the world—women gradually began entering fields of study and work that had been closed to them. In recognition of this change, ASG expanded its instruction by adding a two-year college program to the secondary-school program. The result was the American Junior College for Women (AJC), founded in 1924 and now regarded as the "great-grandmother" of today's Lebanese American University.

In February 1924, Frances P. Irwin, a teacher from Virginia who had been studying Arabic in Beirut for more than a year, was named principal of the new college. Eight months later, Irwin welcomed the first freshman class—eight women—into a pair of small rooms borrowed from ASG, where faculty and students would both live and study. By 1927, Irwin and her two fellow faculty members were teaching their classes in the slightly less cramped quarters of a rented house. Six years later, in 1933, the cornerstone of the college's first permanent building was laid.

Many of AJC's students, .after earning their associate's degrees, moved on to complete their bachelor's degrees at the neighboring American University of Beirut, founded in 1866 (See Aramco World, January-February 1991). There they studied within a predominantly male student body whose members did not invariably make them welcome. But many of the women had developed the will and toughness of pioneers by then, and they persevered.

Of AJC's first class, the class of 1926, only three women graduated. One was Saniya Habboub Nakkash, who went on to become the only Arab graduate at the Women's Medical College in Pennsylvania, where she earned her md in gynecology and obstetrics. In 1932, as the first woman doctor to practice in Beirut, she opened a private clinic in obstetrics and general medicine where she worked for the next half-century. Prominent on the wall of her consulting room was her hand-lettered diploma from AJC.

In early 1935, Frances Irwin took her first furlough, or long leave, in the United States. She had worked an exhausting, virtually non-stop schedule in her decade as the organizing force behind AJC. But her first furlough turned out to be her last: On her arrival in the US, she felt obliged to take on the role of full-time companion to her dying mother, and four years later she herself died at age 44.

Shortly after World War II and the establishment of Lebanon as an independent country, the college introduced junior and senior classes on an experimental basis. The experiment was a success, and in 1950 the New York Board of Regents, which oversaw AJC's academic standards, chartered the college as a four-year institution. The first 14 women to receive BA degrees from the again renamed Beirut College for Women (BCW) picked up their diplomas that year, along with many others who graduated as traditional two-year students.

The first college for women in the Middle East—grown up from its roots as the first elementary school for girls in the Ottoman Empire—has other innovative accomplishments to its credit as well. Dr. Marie Aziz Sabri, alumna, former faculty member and former acting president, recorded some of the college's educational innovations in Lebanon and the Middle East. Classes in adult education began in 1938; a student consumers' cooperative was formed in 1941; student radio broadcasts went on the air in 1946; and in 1962, BCW's president, Frances M. Gray, oversaw the establishment of a summer training program for female teachers from abroad.

But over the years, AJC was mostly credited for producing women who entered professional fields, many of them among the first to do so.

"Changes that could not have taken place with the help of thousands of educated men, through a whole century of university education, are now being brought about in a third of that time by a few hundred women," wrote William Stoltzfus, the college's longest-serving president, to Sabri in 1962.

One 1942 graduate, Pergrouhi Najarian Svajian, returned briefly to BCW in the mid-1960's to serve as the college's first dean of faculty. What she said about her alma mater harmonizes with the college's philosophy today:

The general emphasis was that education was for the enrichment of the human spirit, and not for prestige or position or financial security alone. The creative and open-minded attitude of the College...inspired similar attitudes in us, and when opportunities arose we dared to venture. The continuous effort to relate education to environment, generally absent in education in the Middle East, was a particular eye-opener for me. At the College we realized for the first time, forcefully, that education is a very dynamic experience, not a means to an end.

In 1974, the college began the celebration of its golden jubilee. During the festivities, the administration announced momentous changes: Henceforth, BCW would offer bachelor of science degrees as well as BA's; what was more, it would become fully coeducational, making official the long-standing informal practice of admitting male students who were unable to find particular courses at other institutions. To mark the new direction, the college's name was changed yet again: It would be known as Beirut University College (BUC). At the time of this move, slightly more than 40 percent of the students were Lebanese; the others represented 45 different nationalities.

But 1974's high hopes were shortlived: By the end of the academic year, civil war had engulfed Lebanon. Over the next 16 years, the final phrase of BUC's motto, "To Strive, To Seek, To Find, And Not To Yield," was put to its sternest test. Enrollment plunged from approximately 1100 students to 400 in the first term of the 1975-76 year, then to a scant 150 in the second term. As the war ground on, four BUC professors were kidnapped and held hostage, and university president Riyad Nassar was compelled to leave the campus with his family. Although one professor was released soon after the incident, three were held for six years. But neither they nor any BUC student, faculty member or staff member was killed or seriously injured in more than a decade and a half of turmoil.

During the war, Lebanon came to be divided along sectarian lines. Neighborhoods, towns and cities were often cut off from each other. BUC, like other educational institutions based in West Beirut, opened what were called temporary branches on the eastern side of the city to accommodate students who could not safely cross the demarcation line. In 1983, BUC's leadership decided to keep these programs going, and indeed integrate them into the permanent institution, by expanding the college into a multi-campus university. In 1987, a branch in Byblos, north of Beirut, started operating in rented premises.

This move did not go uncriticized. Some said it encouraged the break-up of Lebanon into sectarian "cantons" by helping institutionalize the country's divisions; BUC's administration held that the war had made decentralization essential to the college's ability to make education available to a diverse student body. In 1992, a campus was opened in Sidon, south of Beirut. And in 1994 the name of the university changed a third time, to "Lebanese American University," or LAU.

Today, LAU and many other Lebanese institutions and individuals are struggling to meet the demands of the country's post-war reconstruction (See Aramco World, January-February 1994). The six-story Zakhem Engineering Building at the Byblos campus, just completed, was built with a $2-million construction pledge from engineer and contractor George Zakhem, chairman of the London-based Zakhem Group; it is the first LAU structuffe to carry the name of a Lebanese family. The second is likely to be a building at the Sidon campus donated by Walid Hariri, whose brother Rafic serves as prime minister of Lebanon.

Enrollment, too, is recovering. In 1994-95, 4200 students attended classes—a far cry from the eight of 1924, and even from the 1100 of 1974. They celebrated the school's 71st anniversary in the schools of arts and sciences, architecture and design, business, and engineering. Now, the university offers bachelor's degrees in those fields as well as in pharmacy, political science, education and human development, computer science, and communications. Through a dual-degree joint program with several American engineering schools, students in that field may elect to finish their studies in the United States. And the university's graduate program today offers master's degrees in business management, international affairs and computer science. A majority of today's students receive some form of financial support.

LAU has moved from writing history to making history, said university president Riyad Nassar in his 1994 commencement address. Nassar, a chemist who joined the faculty in 1965 and was elected to the presidency in 1982, is confident that LAU graduates are among Lebanon's best ambassadors.

Thirty years at the university, and the experiences of a painful civil war, have also reinforced his belief that education leads to a more harmonious society.

"Educated people," he said, "are less destructive, more tolerant, more ready to forgive and, in general, believe in freedom, justice and peace"—fine goals for LAU's eighth decade.

Ghassan Ghosn is a former reporter and editor for Voice of America who is now a university instructor and free-lance writer in Lebanon.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the November/December 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1995 images.