ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Keeping the Brains in the Family

Lebanon’s Catholic universities educate men and women for the good of society.

Ten years ago a visit to Beirut’s St. Joseph University would have been a life-threatening adventure.

Crossing Beirut’s Green Line – which divided Beirut into rival halves – was the first hurdle. Snipers or even the rumor of a sniper shut down regular pedestrian flow. Calling ahead to confirm an appointment was impossible – phone service was always disrupted and cell phones were still just a glimmer in some inventor’s eye.

Often there was no electricity to run university building elevators and even when they were working few people were willing to chance being held hostage by a metal box with no ventilation.

If your destination was at the end of a corridor you would have to feel your way along the wall; there were no lights and, in buildings facing the Green Line, there were no windows, as they were filled in with cement blocks for added protection against snipers. Shrapnel-studded walls in university rooms facing the Green Line demonstrated the importance of these barricades.

Walking from building to building required insider knowledge. There were safe routes and there were those that were not safe.

Today all those memories seem like bad dreams. Students meet, study and relax in security, cell phones jingle in purses and pockets. Buildings are now repaired and improved. Nightlife means what it means in the United States, not militiamen and battle.

For the Lebanese, there is no priority greater than giving their children the best education possible, and from preschool to Ph.D., Catholic schools have an excellent track record.

The Lebanese government imposes a series of standardized tests on students when they are 17 and 18 years of age. These exams act as “weeder” exams – only those who pass are eligible for admission to Lebanon’s institutions of higher education.

There are three Catholic universities in Lebanon. The granddaddy of the three is St. Joseph University, founded in 1875 by French Jesuit Father Ambrose Monnot. Last year marked its 125th anniversary.

For two years Father Monnot toured the United States and Canada, enlisting the aid of 80,000 donors whose contributions made possible the purchase of land and the construction of buildings and a church. The campus grew as faculties were added and student enrollment increased.

The second oldest Catholic university in Lebanon, the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, often called Kaslik, opened in 1950. Its main campus is 10 miles north of Beirut and sits on a Mediterranean bay. Kaslik was founded by the Lebanese Maronite Order; from the community’ foundation in 1695 until 1950, these monks taught philosophy and theology in their monasteries.

Today there are eight faculties for the two universities, including a Pontifical Faculty of Theology, the only one of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa. The Holy See appoints its dean.

Both St. Joseph and Kaslik were founded as French-speaking universities. For many Lebanese, French and Arabic are first languages. Neither St. Joseph nor Kaslik, however, neglects English. In fact, the new policy at St. Joseph is: You have to know French to get in, but you have to know English to get out. To insure that students meet this requirement, St. Joseph works with Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in choosing its English materials and programs. Certificates of achievement in English are issued through Georgetown.

The third and youngest Catholic university, Notre Dame, was established as a college in 1978 and recognized as a university in 1993. Notre Dame was founded by the Maronite Order of the Holy Virgin Mary, which established its first school in 1696.

Notre Dame prides itself on following an American system and uses English as its language of instruction. About 35 percent of its students come from English-speaking high schools. Special classes enable them and the 65 percent who have studied in French to complete an English proficiency exam and the SAT’s successfully.

In contrast to St. Joseph’s urban setting and Kaslik’s coastal location, Notre Dame’s main campus sits on a mountain ridge overlooking deep valleys, mountain villages and towns.

St. Joseph and Notre Dame also have branch universities in other parts of the country. Some were created during the war to accommodate students who could not get to classes on the main campuses and for students whose families might otherwise have sent their children abroad.

All three universities have a mixed Christian-Muslim student population. Branch campuses are located outside the Christian heartland and therefore attract many Muslim students. At Notre Dame’s original north Lebanon campus, 40 percent of the student body is Muslim.

Female students make up at least 50 percent of the student body at each of the campuses and there are a growing number of students from abroad and other Arab countries. The faculties reflect this diversity.

The changes experienced by these three institutions have not altered their shared goals. The first is to instill the basic principles of Catholic teaching: the development of the whole person – spiritually, intellectually, academically, morally and physically. Students are instructed in the importance of humanistic values and taught to strive for excellence in every facet of life. An awareness of social responsibility is the bottom line in all student’s missions.

The first job advertisement that these universities want their grads to see is: “WANTED: Educated men and women who will work for the good of society and their country.”

Along with these goals, these universities also share problems. Over-enrollment in some subjects and professional gluts on the job market are major hurdles.

Of 4,601 students at Kaslik, 1,624, or 35 percent, are business majors. Only 30 study sociology. Lebanese parents want their college investment to pay off – after all, business, not sociology, brings better returns in dollars and cents.

At St. Joseph, students headed for medical schools are urged to consider the extremely low patient-doctor ratio of one doctor per 300 people. The figures are almost identical for aspiring lawyers and engineers. There are very few spots left in Lebanon to hang your shingle in these professions.

The need in the area for social workers and nurses is so severe that St. Joseph offers numerous scholarships in these fields. This has done little, however, to encourage interest.

One of the universities has actually raised the fees for their business school classes with the hope that students will opt for the social services program instead. Again, no luck.

Even if armed with a command of English and a university degree, graduates still face difficulties when searching for a job in Lebanon. To help, the universities hold job fairs every year. “Our responsibility does not end with graduation,” one Notre Dame official said. “To keep our youth in Lebanon we must give them better job opportunities.”

They are not all staying in Lebanon, however. Students who study abroad tend to remain there for a number of reasons. In some fields, doctorate programs are unavailable in Lebanon. The allure of a university in the United States or Canada can be strong. Scholarships from American institutions are available and Lebanese students, with their excellent undergraduate educations, are top contenders. During the war, anxious parents who could afford to do so sent their children abroad and often younger brothers and sisters followed suit.

Before you picture boatloads of talent leaving the shores of Lebanon, however, stop in some afternoon at St. Joseph and ask for Dr. Andre Megarbane.

Dr. Megarbane has a Ph.D. in medical genetics. He specializes in mental retardation and conducts genetic counseling with parents of mentally retarded children. He and his team work to comfort parent’s feelings of guilt, find the cause of their child’s disability and determine the safety of future pregnancies.

Once a year Dr. Megarbane gathers together a team of volunteers and travels abroad. For one month these volunteers share their medical skills with countries such as Ethiopia, India and Jordan. Funds needed for supplies are raised through a benefit concert. The volunteers themselves absorb travel expenses.

At Holy Spirit University in Kaslik, Gabi Mamaary is involved in a painstaking, time-consuming job. Gabi, who has a Ph.D. in Museology, restores old, long-neglected icons. He studied in Chicago, London, Oxford, Leipzig and St. Petersburg. Gabi is putting his “foreign” education to work for a good cause in his home country.

Students of Lebanon’s universities can reach these goals abroad as well. Marwan Kraidy, a 1992 graduate of Notre Dame in Communication Arts, completed both his M.A. and Ph.D. in the United States. Currently he is Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Communication at the University of North Dakota. He also teaches courses in international communication and new media technologies. One of Marwan’s research areas is the media, culture and politics of the Middle East, with an emphasis on Lebanon.

Marwan often travels to Lebanon for research purposes. At some point, he says, he will consider returning to Lebanon, but not in the next couple of years. Unless there are Ph.D. programs in Communication Arts, his talents and research interests could not be matched in his home country.

Whether they serve their own country or an adopted one, the graduates of Lebanon’s Catholic universities are bound to make their alma maters – and their mother countries – proud.

Marilyn Raschka is our Beirut correspondent.

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