The University Experience

by Carmen Geha, PhD (BA ’06, MA ’08)
Dr. Geha is founding director of the Education for Leadership in Crisis program. She is an assistant professor of public administration, leadership, and organizational development. She is also a research associate at the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women.
Spring/Summer 2020

“Afghanistan is not a place to live in, but a place to only survive and wait to be killed,” Zainab* messaged me from her home country. There had been particularly brutal same-day attacks on two sites in Afghanistan that should never be targeted for violence—a maternity ward and a funeral. Zainab is one of 15 Afghan scholarship students in AUB’s Education for Leadership in Crisis (ELC) program funded through the US Embassy in Kabul. The program aims not only to educate Afghan women, but also to develop leadership skills and experience that will enable them to help solve crises when they return home. As I worked with a small team to establish ELC, I thought AUB would give these young women the break they needed to discover themselves while studying at one of the most beautiful campuses in the world.

The students arrived at AUB in the summer of 2019 and by October, Lebanon was embroiled in nationwide protests that turned into a revolution three decades in the making against the country’s corrupt sectarian political elite. Security measures dictated that students switch to online learning to complete the fall semester. As program director I kept a close eye on Afghan students’ progress. They did remarkably well and even sought to reassure me: “Don’t worry Dr. Geha, we are used to disruptions and we are happy for Lebanon, even if it means we have to miss some classes,” said Aisha*.

After the new year it seemed that things were firmly back on track, and we joked about how crisis had followed these young Afghan women to Beirut. And then, in a one-two punch came the twin blows of Lebanon’s currency crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. In a flash, our Afghan students, like international students everywhere, were on flights back home. My recurring nightmare was that someone from this special group would be in harm’s way and I would be powerless to help. But as the days went by, their professors, advisers, and I checked in frequently and followed up on their grades and online courses. The widespread violence in Afghanistan meant that electricity was a rarity in most cities, Wi-Fi was expensive and unreliable, and people everywhere were falling ill and dying. But like the leaders I knew them to be, our students remained strong—focused, communicative, and even cheerful. They shared Facebook pictures of each other from the days when the campus was open, they celebrated birthdays virtually, and they sent inspirational poems. It broke my heart every time I came across these posts.

I do not intend to make the world feel sorry for these students. If anything, we should be focused on and learn from their courage and resilience. I am writing to share my angst about everything that these exceptional young women are missing out on. The university is not about grades and learning objectives—not entirely, at least. When I look back on my university years, I remember encounters and experiences that shaped who I became and continue to become. I remember making best friends and discovering the world together—late-night talks outside Jafet during exam period, and endless discussions about politics, religion, and parents. Some benches across campus have the names of couples who met during their years on campus, and I always stop and read those names out loud, thinking about how amazing it is that somebody met their life partner in class or on the stairs or in the hallways. I had my first big breakup while studying and I remember processing all that emotion while also taking up electives and learning to find my voice. I remember that cool professor that I wanted to be like when I grew up. I remember the late Randa Antoun, who was my teacher at the time and who later became my friend, and though she never saw me finish my PhD, I know if she had that she would be both super proud of me today, as well as my biggest critic. I vividly remember the year 2005. I remember what I was wearing and who I was with on February 14 when that bomb went off and changed our reality forever. I remember the destructive war in the summer of 2006, but mostly I remember coming back that fall and just basking in the sun on the Oval with friends who had lost houses and friends who seemed not to care. I remember trying to understand the extreme contrasts of soul-crushing loss and casual indifference to suffering.

I am haunted by Zainab’s statement “Afghanistan is not a place to live in, but a place to only survive and wait to be killed.” It was ringing in my ears as I prepared to send a reminder about a form to submit for an incomplete grade. But with the cursor on Send I jerked my hand back and deleted the message. It seemed trivial to pursue bureaucratic issues when I hadn’t asked or answered the big questions. How can I support these young women? What can I do?

I realize today that the only way to really support them, and many others, is to make the case for reopening the university. We need to stand up and defend the university as a lived experience. We have all heard so much and said so much and read so much lately about austerity measures in universities across the world. We have read about how video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype are reaping huge profits. We have heard that universities need to redefine themselves to respond to emerging markets, that nobody even knows what they will look like. But what we have not heard and what seems to be missing is a simple reminder of the university as an experience. It is where friends and lovers meet, where teachers mold, and where careers are built. And if we are to embark on saving AUB, then that physical, personal, intimate, and spatial aspect of learning and of leadership must also be saved. The memories and encounters that are part of university life build future lives and forge the characters of future leaders. I know that because I experienced it myself.

* Student names have been anonymized for privacy.