Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1
AUB Reflections: Speaking with Raja Iliya
In 1953, Professor Emeritus Raja Illiya (BA 47) left
the Trans Arabian Pipeline Company to teach engineering at AUB. The youngest
faculty member at AUB at the time, he came with one condition: that he
continue his work as a structural engineer so that his students would
have a teacher who could tell them exactly how to design a building from
the ground up. More than 50 years and 4,500 students later, hes
still proud to be working for his students, and AUB.
When did you arrive at AUB?
Ive been at AUB all my life. Being a third generation AUB graduate,
the school has always seemed like home. Even before I was a student, we
would go and play tennis on the AUB tennis courts. When I think of my
beginnings at AUB, I go all the way back to 1939 when I joined the preparatory
section, now the English section, of IC. After graduating from IC in 1943,
I started at AUB.
It never occurred to me that I would teach, even though my family was
so closely associated with the school. My family wanted me to be a dentist,
like my father, but I knew I wanted to study engineering. When I started
at AUB, engineering was part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. There
was no building for engineering; we had our classes in Bliss Hall. In
1947, when I graduated, graduation was held at the Oval and there were
only 13 engineering students.
What was your first impression?
The year I started as a student at AUB, Lebanon was getting its independence
from the French and so for the first few months of my freshman year, AUB
was on strike. What I remember from those first months of being on campus
is rollerskating on top of West Hall. No classes were held until November
22, when Lebanon gained its independence.
In 1947, my BA was not sufficient to do much in Lebanon so I convinced
my father to send me to the University of Texas to do a masters
degree. When I returned from America, I worked for the Trans Arabian Pipeline
Company. I worked there until August of 1953, when Dean Weidner, a friend
of my uncles, convinced me to join the Faculty of Engineering. He
kept on my case until I joined. Everyone was running to Pipeline, trying
to get a job, and I went in the other direction. I quit Pipeline. And
I never regretted it.
When I joined the Faculty of Engineering, it was with the condition that
I continue working as a structural engineer. This way, the students would
really benefit from my experience. When I taught how to design a building
from the ground up, I knew exactly what to tell my students. I had practical
and recent experience.
At that point, I was the youngest faculty member, almost 27. The tradition
was that the youngest faculty member was the secretary, and so for the
next two years, I had to sit in the center of the room with the rest of
the faculty around me. Some of those professors, like Rubinsky, Manassah,
and Yeramian, were my teachers from my student days. It was not easy.
Where did you teach most of your classes?
I taught in the Bechtel Building that was built two years before I joined,
in 1951. Thats also when the School of Engineering began. And we
used to teach everything, each of us taught four courses every semester.
What was the biggest change you noticed while at AUB?
The student body changed a lot. The first group of students I taught were
really respectful of their teachers. I remember back when I was a student,
when a faculty member would enter the classroom, we would stand up. Towards
the end I would get students wearing sunglasses and a hat in my classroom.
I would tell them Were in class, there is no sun. It
was just a different time.
What do you think your students remember about your classes?
Wherever I go, I meet some of my students; I see them in Abu Dhabi, Saudi
Arabia, England. They often say, You were like a close brother to
us. I think I acquired this from being in American schools all my
life. Though you are a teacher, whats wrong with being friendly
with the students? I think my students also remember that I would throw
a joke into my lectures. I wouldnt keep my classes too serious.
I also taught them the basics. When I think of an engineer, I think of
someone who can build. Thats what I was teaching them.
Though we were close, I was strict with my students about time. I always
respected time. I walked into my classroom at the exact time class was
supposed to start and I would shut the door behind me. No one came in
after me, so all my students learned to come on time. I never took absences,
either. If a student didnt know how to manage their priorities at
the age of 20 or if they thought they didnt need my class, I wasnt
going to try to change their minds. And most of the time, I didnt
have absent students.