By Tom O’Connor
I never planned on going to grad school. As a student of journalism, I’ve always maintained that experience is worth a lot more than academics. After 18 years straight of sitting in classrooms and working day-to-day without pay, it’s amazing how anyone could choose to prolong their educational internment. So why then will I be a pursuing a master’s degree this fall…in Lebanon? If you’ve read my previous articles on studying in Jordan and establishing friendships abroad, you may have an idea of my relationship with the Middle East and how it’s influenced me. After all this time, it’s actually become a crucial part of who I am and, believe me it took me by surprise. That last part’s important. I’ll explain later.
The American University of Beirut is one of the most well known schools in the Middle East and was ranked in the top 250 of QS’s World University Rankings. It’s a private school established in 1866 and since then has attracted a number of notable alumni among them prominent poets, partisans and prime ministers. My first and only visit to the school took place last year while I was studying in Jordan. Andrew, Maggie, Albert and Chakriya were friends of mine in the CIEE Language & Culture Amman program. We had all long wanted to see Lebanon. The opportunity finally came during the long Easter weekend. I honestly can’t recall whose idea it was to visit AUB, but it certainly wasn’t mine. I was so excited to travel to Lebanon that I don’t think I contributed a single item to the agenda; I was just happy to be there. Against my usual nature, I had set my expectations very high for Beirut. Of course, the city exceeded them all.
AUB’s campus is located in the northwestern, upscale neighborhood of Ras Beirut, which overlooks the Mediterranean. Having spent the previous few months in the desert city of Amman, this islander was awestruck by the sight of the sea. The palm trees, sun-washed stones and bright reddish roofs gave the school an otherworldly, paradise-like feel. The man standing at the entrance, donning military fatigues and an AK-47 took me back to reality. I’d only been in the country a day or two, however, and this sight had already ceased to surprise me. The campus is a dynamic blend of architectural styles that seems to transport you through the ages as you walk through canopies of lush vegetation, rustled by the ocean breeze. At some point a small community bulletin board caught my attention. Among other various announcements and promotions was an advertisement for the university’s new MA program in Media Studies.
I had not the slightest clue then that exactly a year from that day I would have applied and been accepted to that school. Now that I get to thinking about it, I find it funny how a lot of things in life come unannounced and unplanned. A lot changed between the beginning of my spring semester in Jordan and my return to American University (my soon-to-be alma matter) in fall. I was getting tired of school, but I was also concerned about my prospects upon returning to New York after graduation. Would I be motivated to find work? Would I put myself out there professionally? I knew this was the time to start planning. It didn’t help that throughout my final year at AU, my classmates began developing professional portfolios and getting offers for real positions. I could not tell you when exactly the idea to apply for AUB came to me, only that I think it was there the whole time…and this is my point. More often than not, we do know what we want; we’re just too distracted to notice.
People have been telling us from time immemorial to listen to our hearts, follow our instincts and go with our guts, but at any given point there is an infinite number of factors and conditions influencing the way we think and feel. Rather than block them out, you need to trust yourself to choose the right ones. Very often, there is no spark. I never experienced any single inspirational moment that knocked me off my feet and revealed what I truly wanted. I had long been dead-set on leaping straight into the job market after graduation, full steam ahead on a path to professional journalism. The catalyst for my change of heart was a faded poster on a wall of a country I spent a weekend in. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It wasn’t instant, either. Rather, it was a gradual process of breaking down reasons, assessments and possibilities. As I said, I think most of us know what we want, there’s just so much going on in the short term, that we fail to pay attention to the subtle, slow transformations that ultimately affect us in the long run. It’s also not a universal formula. You have to apply your own experiences, passions and fears. I have a lot of anxieties going to Lebanon, but somewhere along the line I embraced them and realized that this was the right decision for me. After all, doesn’t it take just the right amount of risk to create the perfect opportunity? If you’re still not convinced that you know what you want yet, then keep yourself open to the constant stream of stimuli around you and the opportunities it may present. Take the best parts of you and everything around you and create a future for yourself. It’s easier said than done, but there’s no one out there better suited to do it than you.