Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1
Maingate Connections: From Tehran to Beirut
Shahrokh (Shawn) Mokhtari (BE 66)
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Since its founding, USAID has made it possible for thousands
of students to study abroad at the American University of Beirut, creating
an exciting international experience for Beirutis and newcomers alike.
Here Shawn Mokhtari (BE 66) recounts the 1960s Iranian experience
In 1961, I left my home city of Tehran and arrived at the
old Beirut International Airport, south of the city, for the first time
in my life. I was not even eighteen. It was the beginning of my 5 years
at the American University of Beirut and perhaps the most formative part
of my adult life.
It wasnt easy getting therecompetition was fierce to get in.
I was one of about 30 Iranian teenagersout of 3,000who were
awarded full scholarships by the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID) to pursue a bachelors degree at AUB. Among our
group of 30 were honors students and valedictorians like myself, who graduated
at the top of their class across high schools in Iran.
In 1961, the ratio of men to women was about 5:1. Out of our small group
of 30, only about three or four women were educated in arts and sciences
and in agriculture. Of the remaining, about a dozen men selected engineering
as their major.
Welcome to Penrose Hall
For most of us, coming to AUB was our first trip outside Iran and our
first flight anywhere. I can still recall that first Pan American Airways
flight as my first plane ride. We traveled together in two batches and
we hardly knew each other on the plane, but we were all Iranians and headed
to AUB, and that was the bond we had in common. Within hours of our arrival
at AUB, we were assigned dormitory rooms at Penrose Hall (men) and Mary
Dodge Hall (women). I lived in Penrose Hall for one year, which was basic,
but comfortable. We had four bedrooms to our suite, two showers, and two
people per room. In those days, it was a requirement that students live
in dorms, especially women.
Upon arrival, we were given food vouchers to eat at Ada Dodge Hall. The
food was not home-cooking, but at least basic Middle Eastern fare, and
we were thankfully used to the taste. Off campus, Faysals and Uncle
Sams across the street from the Main Gate were popular destinations.
Uncle Sams was especially popular; it was after all, an icon of
the campus and an eatery serving American hamburgers, fries, and great
American style coffee!
Pretty soon, we were registered AUB freshmen with books and supplies,
ready for the academic year
and for the AUB social scene, which
included a new students acquaintance party, a trip to the AUB Farm,
and a dinner party with AUB President Norman Burns at Marquand House.
But with all this fun, we had to burn the midnight oil: if we did not
perform well academically, USAID would have terminated our scholarships,
packed us up, and sent us back home. We were motivated to excel
The Grueling Life of an Engineering Student
In 1961, the School of Engineering was only ten years old and it had its
challenges. Co-ed socializing was limited to our daily gatherings at the
cafeteria, around the post office, Saturday parties with Beirut College
for Women (later on, Beirut University College, and now Lebanese American
University), or memorable field trips to Baalbek and the AUB Farm. Women
were not admitted to the School of Engineering. I often believed this
was because Dean C. Ken Weidner, who left by 1962, modeled it after the
all male US military academies such as West Point or Annapolis. It certainly
felt like an academy.
But the biggest challenge by far was the 7:30 am Saturday quiz. Every
other Saturday, we were given a three-hour test on every coursea
grueling ordeal! Each course was offered only once a year and you had
to pass all your courses in order to advance to the next term. If you
failed a course, you had to come back next year to take it over again.
For a USAID recipient, this was the kiss of death
you would have
to go home or change schools immediately.
The next challenge was the 12 weeks of our first summer at the Surveying
Camp at Mazboud, a village north of Sidon in the Chouf District, where
we studied surveying and the operation of building construction equipment
such as excavators, bulldozers, and road scrapers. We worked 12 hot hours
a day surveying the area hills covered with olive groves. Most of us lost
15 pounds during that summer! We experienced community camp living by
sleeping, eating, and studying in the same tents. Some of