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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, he’s still proud to be working for his students, and AUB.

When did you arrive at AUB?
I’ve 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 master’s 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 uncle’s, 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. That’s 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 “We’re 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, what’s wrong with being friendly with the students? I think my students also remember that I would throw a joke into my lectures. I wouldn’t keep my classes too serious. I also taught them the basics. When I think of an engineer, I think of someone who can build. That’s 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 didn’t know how to manage their priorities at the age of 20 or if they thought they didn’t need my class, I wasn’t going to try to change their minds. And most of the time, I didn’t have absent students.


Are you still in touch with many of your former students?

(Spreads arms wide, laughing.) I work with them! This office belongs to five of my former students. I taught about 4,500 students from 1953 to 1992 so I can’t remember them all, but I’ll often recognize a face or a name.

This spring, I accompanied the AUB Development Office to Saudi Arabia. One of the biggest contractors in Saudi Arabia was one of my former students and always refuses to set up meetings—but he gave one to me. I would tell people I had been granted an appointment to see this man and they would be astonished. I remember him well. He was a good student and wanted to do a master’s degree at AUB. He graduated at the beginning of the war and I told him, “Go back to Saudi Arabia. Go study construction there, don’t spend three years in this war zone.” And when I met him again, all these years later, he told me that he owes everything he has to that advice.

Do you have particular memories from living in Beirut during the war (1974-1990)?
No doubt, they were terrible days. But one good thing that came out of those years was that they forced me to study the computer on my own. I learned enough to develop my own programs for engineering that I still use today. They may not be new, flashy programs, but they do the job. I feel that this is an accomplishment, because when I first started working, we used the slide rule.

During the war days, I was a Christian living in Ras Beirut. I remember how students used to help me and my family get bread and gasoline. Whenever I was short of anything, they would be there. And when I offered them my thanks, they would always thank me instead for staying and teaching throughout the war years. Quite a number of teachers had left and those of us still at the University were teaching six or seven courses a semester.

When did you leave AUB? Have you been back?
I’m always involved, often through fundraising with the Development Office. But when I talk to people and ask them to give money, I always tell them that I’m not doing this for the administration or the people at AUB, I’m doing it for AUB itself.

Do you have something you’d like to say to your former students?
Wherever I go, I meet my students, and I am always so very proud of what they are doing. They are respectful and successful. Seeing them and hearing about their work and their lives is what makes being a teacher so satisfying. I am very thankful to them.

Interested in contacting Professor Illiya? E-mail maingate@aub.edu.lb

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