Laurie Williamson: An education of a lifetime

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Laurie Williamson, professor and coordinator of the professional school counseling program in the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University, received a Fulbright Scholar Award to conduct research and teach graduate counseling courses at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. The following is her account of the experience:

It may have been the best of times or it may have been the worst of times. This is Lebanon and everything is relative.

I went to Lebanon as a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship Program and was placed at the University of Balamand (UoB), a small private university in northern Lebanon, teaching graduate counseling courses for the 2007-08 school year. The university is located on a historical site of an Antioch Orthodox monastery which is built upon the ruins of a Byzantine Abbey. I lived in a faculty apartment on campus overlooking the Mediterranean Sea from where I could hear the church bells and the muezzin, or call to prayer, from the nearby mosque. It was an idyllic setting.

In the Classroom

Students do not buy expensive textbooks at the University of Balamand. Instructors often provide copies of chapter notes or assign relevant articles that can be secured online. Classrooms are bare and consist of a teacher's desk, student chairs (often secured to the floor) and a white board. No overhead projector, no Internet connection, no PowerPoint presentations, no CD or audio visual equipment. It's back to the basics and flexibility is the name of the game.

In the graduate-level counseling course, I had planned group experiential activities and projects to highlight critical issues such as suicide, divorce, substance abuse, eating disorders, sex abuse and ADHD. In the introductory class, students informed me that these topics were not relevant. They commented, "We don't have these problems in Lebanon." I took a deep breath and considered throwing my syllabus out the window. But little by little, as the conversation continued, students began to confess that perhaps Lebanon does have these problems. They are just hidden and not talked about openly.

My professional responsibilities included making several site visits to local schools, participating in the design of a new curriculum in psychology, sitting on two master's thesis committees, and making several presentations on topics such as stress, depression and hope. An enormous amount of my energy was dedicated towards conducting an exciting, large-scale research project to assess student stress levels. Anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress abound in Lebanon due to the unstable political climate. A colleague and I were interested in evaluating the stress levels of the university's student population in the hopes that there were supportive measures the university could implement to help students cope more effectively. There is a great need for professional psychological counseling on campus (and in the country). The data from the project is currently being analyzed.

A Country in Turmoil

Lebanon has been without a president and embroiled in turmoil since November 2007 when President Lahoud's term expired. There were six major political assassinations in the interim. By May 2008, Lebanon was still without a president. Violence broke out in Beirut between Hezbollah and the government, and the unrest spread across the major regions of the country. The airport and the border crossings into Syria were closed. The pro-Western television and radio stations were destroyed. Schools, including the university, suspended classes. There was no place to go and not much to do.

While we waited, the weather was beautiful, the sun warm, the Mediterranean calm and the sky blue. We had power, food and water. With classes suspended, campus life took on an eerie silence. A quiet anxiety gripped us all. Some folks couldn't sleep, some couldn't eat and some couldn't concentrate. A few became obsessed and were glued to the Internet or television monitoring every update and turn of events. It is a type of addiction that plagues many Lebanese. They seemed to savor the emotional roller coaster ride and the rush of adrenaline as each event unfolded. There are as many different ways to cope with the turmoil as there are Lebanese, but the wear and tear took a toll on everyone.

Bomb days vs. snow days

There was a cognitive dissonance in attempting to live in two mindsets at once; one was the grim images seen on television and the other was the quiet isolation at UoB. One mind was preparing for the worst and considering the available options should an evacuation become necessary. The other was continuing to grade papers and plan for the remainder of the semester.

I found it exhausting to function with so many uncertainties at hand. The closest comparison I have experienced is when there is a heavy snow storm that closes things down for a predictable period of time.

Seasoned faculty here build in "bomb days" to their schedules as we build in "snow days." The Lebanese seem to view the political upheaval and sporadic violence that disrupts their lives as uncontrollable acts of nature. But the violence here cannot be anticipated on a seasonal basis or monitored by the predictability of weather satellites. These acts of human nature, which are controlled and deliberate acts of destruction, take a more insidious toll on human stamina than that incurred by the unpredictable wrath of Mother Nature.

Lebanon's brain drain

The emigration issue or "brain drain" is acute as many young professionals choose to leave their country to find a stable and secure future elsewhere. A recent editorial cartoon showed lines of people waiting to board an airplane. The caption read: Graduation Day in Lebanon. The emigration question not only affects students, but faculty struggle with the uncertainty of their futures as well. Currently, there are four million Lebanese living in Lebanon and some five million Lebanese nationals who have chosen to leave and live abroad. How difficult it must be to leave your country, your family, your history, your language and your traditions. It was a painful process to watch new friends deliberate over such an enormous decision.

Final reflections

Overall, I was made to feel very welcome, respected on my individual merits and not on my government's policies, and my stay was an education of a lifetime. I have found that the amount of risk I take often corresponds to the amount of education or benefit I receive. I have developed a deep appreciation for Lebanon and the persistence and resilience of its people. I have seen how great a price people are willing to pay for a plot of homeland. I have come to appreciate the emotion behind the passionate and mournful music that calls out to "habibi" or that which I love. I have been a witness to a small piece of history and am now able to put a name and face on the people who make up the Middle East.