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Summer 2009 Vol. VII, No. 4

Alumni Profile

An Educational Empire

Walid Abushakra (BE ‘63) wanted to be a civil engineer but fate and a love of education took him off course. What began as a way to pay for AUB, ended up as an educational empire stretching across the Middle East and back to Lebanon where it all began.

The founder, superintendent, and chairman of Educational Services Overseas Limited (ESOL), Abushakra has established and developed more than ten schools across the region including the American International Schools in Egypt, Abu Dhabi, and Cyprus, as well as schools in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and in Gaza (which was heavily damaged during the January 2009 Israeli offensive). All the schools are accredited by the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges and/or the Council of International Schools. Under Abushakra’s abiding scrutiny, thousands of pupils enjoy the benefits of a top class education provided by a mostly internationally recruited staff of more than 600 teachers.

Abushakra is delighted that his two sons, Bassam and Tammam, have joined him in running ESOL, and will soon be followed by their younger sister Rima. “As a family we are committed to this; it is our mission, our duty,” Abushakra says. He recalls the occasion when he first approached his family about the future of ESOL and the schools under its management. “We were all together, and I said to them, I am not getting any younger. People have entrusted us with their children, the most valuable thing they have, and we are morally committed to deliver, so what do you think? They said, ‘Dad we believe in your mission. Let us do our thing and when you need us, call us.’ So for them this was a call of duty. And before I called, they felt the great need to join by themselves. I tell you frankly my main worry was when the young come, the children of the founders, things do not go smoothly. I was very pleased to see that the ESOL old guard gets along with them better even than with me.”

Asked to explain the secret of his success, Abushakra says simply, “Honesty and hard work. No one can say I have told an untruth. No one can say I promised something without delivering. I am totally dedicated. I am an educator with a good business mind—and I care for high standards. We set the bar very high and our dedication is a role model for our pupils. We are very caring employers—those who have worked for us are our best ambassadors because they know we treated them well; we are very fair. This is how we work, honesty, professionalism, setting high standards, and being a good role model. I am very fortunate that my profession is also a hobby, a passion.”

As a young man, Walid Abushakra discovered his first passion, mathematics. An AUB civil engineering graduate (BE ’63), Abushakra supported himself at AUB by teaching mathematics for the Lebanese baccalaureate parts I and II, working day and night and taking a break only on national holidays. During this time he coauthored two series of mathematics textbooks. Engineering soon proved to be a side interest as Abushakra worked with a committee of Lebanese authors writing textbooks for the Lebanese baccalaureate (commonly referred to as the Bac); it wasn’t long before schools teaching the Bac were using these new textbooks almost exclusively. Abushakra’s growing commitment to improving education led him to accept the opportunity to become director of the Universal College in Aley in 1969. Under his leadership, by 1976 the college was achieving nearly perfect scores in the Lebanese Bac.

Like many Lebanese, Abushakra’s career was thrown off course by the civil

war, but not for long. Sensing further serious trouble to come and eager to replicate Aley’s successful formula elsewhere, he headed to Kuwait where he established the Universal American School in Kuwait. At the time of the Iraqi invasion in 1990, it was the largest American accredited school in the Middle East and had an enrollment of 1,600 students.

A man with highly tuned political antennae, Abushakra sensed danger ahead one year before the Iraqi invasion and started exploring options for a school in Egypt. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, he quickly relocated to Cairo, rented a property, and opened the doors of the American International School in Egypt (AISE) to 42 pupils only six weeks after he arrived. This extraordinary beginning led some colleagues in international education to dub AISE “the miracle school.” By the end of the year, the school had 250 students, and four years later it boasted a fully-equipped, purpose built campus, and an enrolment of more than 1,000 students. Ten years later, it moved once again to a magnificent, state-of-the-art school on a 51,000 square meter campus in New Cairo that caters to more than 1,400 students. The Cairo English School, built on an equally impressive campus, is 10 minutes down the road. This flourishing network will soon include a new branch campus, the American International School in Egypt West, which will be inaugurated under the shadow of the Pyramids in August 2009. As if this were not enough, work will soon begin on the new El-Alamein University, which is being developed in educational partnership with California State University Northridge and is targeted for opening in September 2011.

During the 1990s, ESOL’s reputation grew. In 1993, International Schools Services (ISS) of Princeton, New Jersey asked Abushakra to take over the Nicosia School, which became the American International School in Cyprus. ISS was so impressed with the results that they invited Abushakra to assume management of a small school in Saudi Arabia, another challenge he took on with great success.

With ESOL gaining a strong reputation as an organization with the capability to establish and manage high quality American schools in multiple countries, Abushakra partnered with a local investor to establish the American International School in Abu Dhabi (AISA) in 1995. Today AISA serves 1,200 students and is recognized as one of the emirate’s very best schools.

Abushakra’s educational empire later expanded further into Saudi Arabia with the establishment of the International Programs School in Al Khobar in 2000 and the management of Asir Academy beginning in 2002. During this period, ESOL was also invited to help with the establishment of the American International School in Gaza and, coming full circle , took over Universal College Aley, where Abushakra first started his career as a school director in 1969.

By 2005, ESOL had built one of the most formidable teams of educational professionals in the world. The organization was ready for new challenges. As had happened before in Kuwait and in Egypt, ESOL’s success with AISA in Abu Dhabi opened the door to new opportunities in the United Arab Emirates. In 2005, ESOL entered the Dubai market, launching the Universal American School in Dubai (UASD) as well as the organization’s first British curriculum school, the Deira International School (DIS). UASD and DIS enjoy two of the best school campuses in the region and are part of the Al Futtaim Group’s beautiful Dubai Festival City development along the Dubai Creek. The organization’s reputation and its capabilities were instrumental in the success of UASD and DIS. In the few short years since their opening in 2005, both Dubai schools have grown to serve more than 1,100 students, and are quickly establishing themselves as two of the region’s truly outstanding schools.

Abushakra’s 53 years in education have been recognized with a number of awards. He was inducted into the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) Hall of Fame in 2005 and was awarded the International Schools Association Award for Distinguished Service to International Education in 2007, an annual award that is given to an outstanding international educator who has exemplified the highest ideals of international education. On receiving the award Abushakra told his audience that he took special pride in the fact that he is the first Arab or American of Arab descent to receive the award because his main goal in becoming an educator was to achieve the highest standards of international education in the Arab world.

Looking back over more than half a century in education, he has few regrets. He recalls with chagrin some of the early snubs he got when he was starting out in recruitment fairs in America, but they were short lived and he enjoyed the satisfaction of subsequent apologies. He also sustained the loss of the Universal American School in Kuwait, seized by his local sponsor, and the American International School in Kuwait, which suffered the same fate.

Thirty-three years after the establishment of his first school in Kuwait, ESOL’s success continues to be driven by the same vision and the same unwavering commitment to high quality education. ESOL’s schools do not share a common curriculum: while most offer an American curriculum, a few follow a British curriculum. They also vary widely in the makeup of their student bodies. The student body at the American International School in Egypt is 70 percent Egyptian, with more than 40 countries represented in the remaining 30 percent. In the two ESOL schools in the UAE, fewer than 15 percent of the students are from the Emirates with most of the student body from 80 other nations. What all the ESOL schools share is an inviting, positive, pleasant, and student-centered learning environment, and a commitment to high standards of educational quality, the traits that are at the core of Abushakra’s educational vision.

Through all this, Walid Abushakra has never forgotten where and how he started. In 1969, exactly 30 years after he became director of the Universal College in Aley, he was invited to buy it. He renovated the school as a gift from the Abushakra family to Lebanon, and added to its excellent education with an annual scholarship fund to AUB. The brainchild of his wife Nada, until recently an active member of ESOL, the Walid and Nada Abushakra Endowed Scholarship sponsors two students a year at AUB from the Universal College in Aley (UCA).

“AUB opened my mind to new horizons and opened a wide gate to admire and partake in educational and cultural developments in the world,” says Abushakra. “That is why we are so faithful to AUB, and why we are so honored to have AUB President Peter Dorman as our keynote speaker at UCA’s Centennial Anniversary Graduation event this summer.”