Learning a life lesson: Never give up when an emergency strikes

By Rami G. Khouri and Marwan Issa Khouri is Director of Global Engagement; Adjunct Professor of Journalism; Director of Anthony Shadid Archives research project; Senior Public Policy Fellow (Issam Fares Institute). Issa just graduated from AUB with a BA degree in Media and Communications and was a student in Khouri’s narrative writing course.
Fall 2020/Winter 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to interrupt 14 consecutive years of the International Biodiversity Day at AUB (IBDAA) poster forum and student competition on women and climate change, AUB chemistry professor and director of the Nature Conservation Center (NCC) Najat Saliba and her undergraduate students learned an important life lesson—emergencies generate creativity and determination, and magic happens when caring professors work closely with committed students and give them responsibilities to shoulder.

The event is sponsored annually by AUB’s Nature Conservation Center and usually packs the open-air courtyard in front of FAFS in the lower campus. In its last year outdoors in 2019, 350 students from universities across Lebanon formed four-person groups that researched and proposed novel ideas on how to preserve the environment, which they shared with hundreds of participating students, 60 judges from Lebanon and abroad, and a growing interested public.

“When AUB shut down classes on campus in favor of online learning in mid-March,” Dr. Saliba recalled in an interview, “we feared we would have to cancel this year’s IBDAA. We did not immediately know what to do.” She met with the small group of student coordinators who managed the project, and after a brief discussion amidst some bewilderment about their options, “We decided on the spot that this was a challenge we would meet,” senior-year student and project coordinator Celine Al-Nemer recalled. “We would have to quickly figure out how to hold the IBDAA poster competition online.” In the next two months, dozens of student volunteers had to recreate online mechanisms for hundreds of students in multiple universities. With the assistance of Professors Saliba and Wassim el-Hajj, they identified the online UnHangout platform developed by MIT, which allows dozens of teams in different countries to simultaneously present their projects online, usually grouped into different sessions. Other students and the public can view the proposals, as can the judges who also interact with the student presenters.

For six weeks the students worked furiously to overcome the challenges they suddenly faced: informing and attracting AUB classes and other universities to participate, allowing students in varying internet situations to log onto the platform with their different laptops and permissions requirements, and making sure they could all use their browsers, cameras, and microphones. They had to be absolutely certain they could pull off the online IBDAA 2000 presentation in April. “We tested so many things every day, trained and educated students, and tested again and again,” Al-Nemer recalled.

Professor Saliba never lost confidence in her students, “because I saw the benefits for them at the personal, moral, and career levels,” she recalls. “I challenged them to keep trying to make it work, and to never give up. They pushed me, like I pushed them, but still I had to prepare myself for the possibility that it might not succeed.”

It did succeed, with just a few minor glitches. One-hundred and seventy students from seven universities presented 49 different projects that explored many aspects of women and climate change, or either topic on its own. The range and ingenuity of the projects lived up to IBDAA’s reputation, bringing together the world of ordinary families with the potency of chemistry, engineering, and entrepreneurship to urgently find new ways to conserve our deteriorating natural resources.

Proposal topics included natural hair dyes, classroom teaching projects, bamboo make-up pens, transforming waste to nourishment for animals and humans, women and water management, reducing the usage of plastic bottles, and the pandemic’s impact on air quality and on the health of healthcare workers. Sixty judges in groups of three assessed each project by listening to the student presentations and then questioning the students. The public event spanned four sessions over two afternoons, and winners were chosen for project design, business application, research value, and the humanities.

The online event even proved to have some advantages over a live event. It allowed more judges and students outside Beirut and Lebanon to participate in or watch the presentations, and a few expert keynote speakers added this year spoke in those time gaps created by the online format. Participants had a chance to ask questions and join discussions with the speakers.

In retrospect, students and professors commented that this year’s online IBDAA showcased the usual ingenuity of students while demonstrating the human will to succeed in the face of adversity. Students said they especially valued having a voice and a role in finding ways to make the event succeed online. “This was different than doing research or being in [student] clubs, because it made me feel that my decision is valued here, my voice can be heard, and most importantly that what we do can make a change,” one student participant said.

Another student was inspired by “the experience of seeing different projects all tackling one theme. Trying to protect the environment, people’s lands and rights, is very empowering and satisfying, because it makes us feel how we are all connected to the same problem.” A student noted that COVID-19 heightened the awareness of the threats that climate change poses to all people, who all feel the same pain, and who might now recognize the need to contribute to a common response by the entire world. Another student noted that the pandemic, like climate change, most severely impacts women, especially poor and low-income women, which expanded many participants’ awareness of the gender dimension of these and other issues.

“We’re proud and thankful that we had the opportunity to be part of this new era,” Celine Al-Nemer noted, adding that many students who worked on IBDAA 2000 are now applying lessons they learned to the many projects underway to address the extreme adversity Lebanon faces this year. One plan underway will see IBDAA 2021 focus on the recently damaged neighborhoods of Beirut, including outdoor poster contests in the Gemmayzeh and Karantina areas. “The biggest lesson I learned,” Al-Nemer concluded, “was that nothing is impossible, no matter how hard the challenge may seem at first, if we work together and set our minds to finding solutions. We learned never to give up.”

BDAA 2021 will focus on humanitarian aspects of rebuilding Beirut: heritage conservation, engineering, community health, the environment, small to medium business support, arts, and education.