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Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1

Maingate Connections: From Tehran to Beirut

Shahrokh (Shawn) Mokhtari (BE ’66)

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MainGate welcomes contributions from alumni reflecting on their AUB experiences as well as stories about their lives after graduation. Submissions may be sent to maingate@aub.edu.lb.

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 1960’s Iranian experience at AUB.

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 wasn’t easy getting there—competition was fierce to get in. I was one of about 30 Iranian teenagers—out of 3,000—who were awarded full scholarships by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to pursue a bachelor’s 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, Faysal’s and Uncle Sam’s across the street from the Main Gate were popular destinations. Uncle Sam’s 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 student’s 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 course—a 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

my fellow students even had their professors for roommates. For myself, the two most memorable and impressive faculty members were Khosrof Yeramian, professor of architecture (who addressed us as funny faces) and Jamil Ali, professor of mathematics (who called Iranian students descendents of Omar Khayyam).

For us Iranian students, AUB and the USAID Scholarship Program provided a pivotal opportunity that shaped our way of thinking, our academic training and the course of our lives and careers. Many of us left AUB to continue our graduate work in the United States and eventually settled there. I received my degree in Civil Engineering in June 1966 and came to the United States that same year. In 1970, I received a PhD in structural engineering from the University of Missouri. I look back on that time at AUB and I know thanks to that scholarship, I achieved much professional and personal success. Today, I am retired and live in southern California with my wife Suzy (she is Lebanese and was an executive secretary at the School of Engineering in the ’60s). We have twin daughters, a son and three grandkids.

During the 1960s AUB’s student enrollment was a little over 3,000 and out of this, the total Iranian enrollment was about 150. The School of Engineering had about 350 students with about 30 Iranians. Of the 12 Iranian engineering students who graduated in 1966, eight did post-graduate work in the United States and Canada. They mostly live in North America now.

We are still in touch by e-mail, phone, or occasional reunions. During our last reunion in 2004 in southern California, we established the Iranian AUB Alumni Fund (IAAF) to provide scholarships for deserving AUB students. We hope to continue this effort for years to come and give back a small gift to AUB, where we spent some of our best years. If you are interested in knowing more about this fund or in supporting the IAAF, please contact me personally by e-mail at smokhtari1@cox.net.

The Beginnings of USAID
The precursor to USAID was the Point Four Program—a program for economic aid to developing countries announced by President Truman at his inauguration speech on January 20, 1949. It took its name from the fourth foreign policy objective mentioned in that speech.

On September 4, 1961, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, which reorganized the US foreign assistance programs including separating military and non-military aid. The act mandated the creation of an agency to administer economic assistance programs, and on November 3, 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The USAID Scholarship Program at AUB provided funds for all aspects of the student’s education. It paid for tuition, fees, books, laboratory supplies, and for a monthly cash stipend of $100 (then about 300 LL). At the end of each school year, students were given a round trip air ticket so they could visit their families.

Today, USAID is still dedicated to making an AUB education available to students worldwide.

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