GoAbroad Interview

Cynthia Myntti - Professor & Project Leader

Cynthia Myntti - Professor & Project Leader

Though from the U.S., Cynthia has spent most of her life in Europe and the MIddle East. She is a graduate of the American University of Beirut, where she earned her master’s degree in anthropology in 1974. However, she also has a PhD in social anthropology from the London School of Economics, a masters of public health from Johns Hopkins University, and a masters degree in architecture from Yale. Cynthia is a published author, philanthropist, and deeply involved academic. Though she works as a professor of public health at AUB currently, she is also the project lead of the Neighborhood Initiative, dedicated to the urban environment; community and well-being, and neighborhood diversity.

You were a student yourself at the American University of Beirut. How did your time as a master’s degree student in Beirut impact your life? 

I was a student at AUB from 1972 to 1974, the end of what has been called the “golden era of Beirut,” before the Lebanese Civil War. AUB was a cosmopolitan place then, with hundreds of international students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I was one of many American students at AUB, but there were Europeans, Turks, Arabs from all over the Middle East, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Indians.

American University of Beirut staff orientation

Leading neighborhood tour during New Faculty Orientation

For me, as an American, it was a thrilling experience. I studied about Middle Eastern history, society, and politics with some of the most famous professors in the field, a real privilege. I had the opportunity to study Arabic and then use it in field research for my master thesis, a much richer experience than doing a thesis based on library research. AUB was also caught in the cross-currents of post-1968 student politics and the atmosphere was highly politicized.  Palestinian students were particularly active. Hot political topics were debated on and off campus. I learned as much about the Middle East from this as I did in the classroom. 

Being at AUB opened my eyes up to the world, and to non-American perspectives in particular. 

How do you use your own experience as an AUB student in your current role? 

Having lived here as a student from 1972 to 1974 I have a historical perspective on AUB and Ras Beirut, which is important from my work directing the Neighborhood Initiative. In the past, the university had many more connections to the neighborhood than it does now. More students and faculty lived nearby, walked in the streets, shopped in shops, and ate in neighborhood restaurants. 

Visiting White Desert in Egypt

Visiting White Desert in Egypt

Your professional career has taken you through various roles in academia and philanthropy. How did you end up settling in to your current role at the American University of Beirut? 

When I turned 50 I decided to change my career by returning to graduate school in architecture.  It became clear to me when finishing my architecture studies that I was not cut out for an entry-level job in an architecture firm. Instead, I had to create something that would combine all that I cared about, and everything I knew from my previous work and studies. I realized that I wasn’t in fact changing my career, but adding a new spatial or architectural dimension to it.

I had had a conversation with the then President of AUB, Dr John Waterbury, about creating a program to link the university with its neighborhood through research and outreach projects. He liked the idea, we raised funds to make it happen, and, as they say, the rest is history. 

What does a typical day of work look like for you? 

Most days are a mix of meetings with AUB faculty, students, or administrators, answering e-mails, and walking in the neighborhood for errands or visits. No one day is typical though! A lot of what we do is facilitate the work of faculty and students, so solving problems as they arise is a key part of what I do. 

You have quite a range of degrees under your belt, from anthropology to architecture. How do you utilize all your academic knowledge to further the mission of AUB?

AUB’s mission is to “provide excellence in education, participate in the advancement of knowledge through research, and serve the peoples of the Middle East and beyond.” The Neighborhood Initiative draws on both the social dynamics of the neighborhood and its relations with AUB on one hand, and works to improve the built environment on the other. So you could say our work is, broadly speaking, anthropological and architectural. Our projects give students the chance to work on solving local problems. What is excellence in education if it is not relevant to solving local problems? Our projects also serve the region, starting with the part of Beirut just outside our campus walls, by generating ideas and creating new models for problem-solving.

You manage the The Neighborhood Initiative at AUB. How can international students get involved with this program? 

Many students, whether Lebanese or international, become involved in the Neighborhood Initiative projects through classroom assignments given by their professors. For example, we had many civil engineering students do research on aspects of neighborhood congestion as part of traffic planning courses or horticulture students develop green walls that could be used on neighborhood apartment buildings. Students have also done “final year projects” on neighborhood issues, such as designing a system for rainwater catchment or redesigning a sidewalk to be “barrier free.” We have also had graduate students do research for their masters or PhDs. A PhD thesis recently examined the system design for a shared taxi service to be used by AUB commuters in an effort to reduce congestion in neighborhood streets. 

What sets studying abroad at AUB apart from other study abroad programs? 

AUB is in Beirut, which has to be one of the most fascinating cities on earth.

American University of Beirut, Neighborhood Initiative project staff members

Cynthia with Dalia Chabarek, Neighborhood Initiative Coordinator, at the office

You’ve had a connection with AUB for quite a long time. What is the most rewarding part about working for AUB? 

The people. I have what you could call “historical” friends here as well as many new ones. Working with people I respect and like, many of whom are or become friends, is really rewarding.

What is the most important piece of advice you have for future international students at AUB? 

Never say no to an invitation to get out and see the city and country.