The University Scholarship Program Celebrates its 10th Anniversary

by Eric Eyges
Fall 2021

During California’s COVID-induced lockdown, Khaled Al Kurdi (BS ’16) did much of his work as a chemist from his home office in a luxury high-rise in downtown San Jose, his desk beneath a shelf of hanging plants, abutting a window that looks out on a pool and lounge area. In the mornings, he’d meet virtually with his colleagues to discuss progress and next steps on the development of a product meant to cool electronic devices—computers, TVs, phones—more efficiently by an order of magnitude. He practices mindfulness and prefers to live in the present, but memories of a very different past life are not far below the surface.

As a child in Tarik El Jdideh, he shared a makeshift bedroom with his siblings in a top-floor apartment. The roof leaked in the winter when it rained. During the neighborhood’s frequent blackouts, he would study by battery lamp, and by candlelight when the batteries ran out. His father had a shop around the corner that sold lamps, cords, wires, and plugs. On occasion, as a teenager, he would jog through Ras Beirut, past AUB’s Main Gate. “I would peak through. It was a glamorous world to me.”

Eventually, by dint of hard work and opportunity provided by AUB’s USAID-funded University Scholarship Program (USP), Al Kurdi would enter that world and succeed, later earning his PhD at Georgia Institute of Technology, before joining Frore Systems, a Silicon Valley electronics firm. He is one of 336 students who found in the USP program the means to leap several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder.

The USP program, now known as the Higher Education Scholarship (HES) program, was born 10 years ago from a grant application. It has morphed into a powerful engine of opportunity in Lebanon under the leadership of Samar Harkouss, USP director and head of the University Preparatory Program, and Malek Tabbal, professor of physics and Provost Designee in USP/HES. The pair applied for and were awarded the seminal grant in 2011. They have since worked to build up the necessary infrastructure for recruiting promising scholars from across Lebanon to the USP program.

In the beginning, Lebanese scholars were drawn exclusively from the country’s public school system, which centered the applicant pool among the financially strained. “The public-school requirement somehow struck a chord for me for me because my father was a public school principal in Lebanon,” said Tabbal. “Public school students have always been very rare on AUB’s campus.” Since 2018, however, the program was expanded to include refugees and students from private schools.

Though AUB provides generous financial aid to the majority of its students, most do not receive full scholarships; thus, students are still expected to cover some tuition costs. For USP scholars, paying even a portion of these costs is not possible. The USP scholarship brings “a different kind of student to AUB, students that couldn’t pay even 10 percent of the tuition,” explained Tabbal. “We often have to pay for their transportation just to come here for the application interview. It is a completely different scale in terms of financial need.”

Given their disadvantaged backgrounds, USP scholars are among the most financially protected students at AUB. Their tuition, room and board, meals, stipend, and laptop are all paid for in US dollars distributed at regular intervals by the US government to protected bank accounts, helping to insulate them from Lebanon’s financial crisis.

Once they arrive on campus, many USP scholars sense a cultural gulf between themselves and other students. “It can be a challenge to integrate students into a very modern, westernized campus. Many of these students have never been out of their villages. When they come for a site visit, it’s maybe the first time they’ve come to Beirut in their lives,” said Harkouss.

Duaa Kallam (BSN Expected ’23), a scholar from Tyre studying nursing under a new USP sister program for refugees, remembers her surprise upon arrival: “It was a whole new mood. In Tyre, it’s one color. You don’t meet people from different backgrounds. It was like, okay, let’s keep silent. I wanted to understand how [people at AUB] think. I was just observing.”

Al Kurdi recalled a similar feeling, heightened by an instinct to conceal his background. “I never introduced myself as a scholarship student. I didn’t want to lead with that. But over time, I let the walls drop. The students I met weren’t the entitled people I thought they were,” he said.

Scholars spend the bulk of their first year on campus in Reynolds Hall, working through the University Preparatory Program. “This is to bring them up to speed, improve their English and study skills,” explained Harkouss. Indeed, many USP students tout the soft-skills training and mandatory volunteer experience that forms a central part of the USP program as crucial to their success both at AUB and in the workplace.

“Volunteering has changed my life,” said Kallam, speaking of her experience at the Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon. “I just played with [the children there].” She also distributed food to families in need as a volunteer with Italian NGO Sante Gidio. Reem Abou Ibrahim (BS ’16), a USP scholar and computer science graduate, volunteered with the Red Cross: “We went to orphanages, hospitals, underdeveloped areas. We had political discussions. We played cards. It humbles you.”

Reem would go on to become valedictorian of her class and serve on the University Student Faculty Committee. “I can’t sum up what I got out of [the USP program] in words. We had both academic and social or behavioral expectations. We had to plan ahead of time. I learned time management, interviewing skills, writing skills. I had a support network. USP made sure I had a well-rounded university experience.”

After graduation, Reem traveled to Dubai, joining Deloitte as a forensic technologist. She was fast-tracked for promotion, became a champion for corporate social responsibility in the region, and continued to volunteer, teaching financial literacy to nearby high school students. She was selected as one of 50 delegates to represent Deloitte at One Young World. Now she works for the United Nations, using a suite of enterprise software tools to sift through data and documents for evidence of war crimes.

“My dad now has lost his job for two years, but thanks to my career, I can provide for my family as the sole provider. I’m paying my brother’s college tuition, and I’ll probably have to pay for my sister’s too. I can’t imagine what the situation would be if I didn’t have the job and income I do. And that’s thanks to USP.”

Eventually, she hopes to return to Lebanon and enter politics. “I’d like to start small, maybe at the municipality level. That’s where there is real need right now. Everyone like me takes the easy way out just to make ends meet. But I’d like to go back and work to make it so that people don’t feel they have to leave to survive.”