Laura Sisco - Graduate Program Alumni

What inspired you to go abroad?

Growing up with various multicultural experiences led me to study abroad to gain my master’s degree.

I was dear friends with a German girl throughout elementary school: she helped me learn German words and phrases, and I helped her with English. After she and her family returned to Germany, I saved up for a few years and then visited during my freshman year of high school. Later, I hosted a French exchange student for a month, and she hosted me at her home with her family in Perigueux, France. Additionally, during my senior year of high school, my family and I hosted a Norwegian student.

After my first year of undergraduate studies, I volunteered in Guyana for a summer and during my junior year, I studied abroad in Kenya and Tanzania. Upon graduation, I moved to Cameroon and lived there for about two and half years. When I returned to the U.S. I knew that I needed to gain a master’s degree in order to develop my career.

Apart from not wanting to study in the U.S., I didn’t know where I wanted to pursue further education. I began talking with different people, seeking advice and guidance.  One professor that was giving guidance happened to meet an AUB biology professor, Dr. Saoud. He advised that I travel to Beirut to study. I heeded his advice and now I’ve returned to the U.S. with my graduate degree. 

Tourists in Bcharre, Lebanon
Visiting Bacharré with my Mom and friends in January, 2015

Why did you choose your specific program/organization?

After I had communicated with the AUB Biology professor, noted above, it became clear that my previous undergraduate studies were not in line with his department. Thus, he contacted a colleague from another department, from landscape design and ecosystem management.

My previous experiences and studies fit in well with this department, so I ended up being able to have an advisor from both LDEM and the biology department. I enjoyed having greater depth to my research by choosing an interfaculty program that included three different departments (LDEM, biology, and agriculture). 

What was your favorite part about Beirut?

My favorite part about Beirut was that there were always activities and events going on—both on and off AUB’s campus. Additionally, my favorite part about Lebanon was the rich history within its borders, and the environmental activities. I will always miss the time I spent swimming in the sea, hiking/skiing in the mountains, and visiting historical ruins/museums around the country. 

What made your experience abroad unique?

My experience abroad was unique in that I wasn’t affiliated with a school in the States—I directly enrolled with AUB, and this meant that I didn’t have any sort of safety net to fall back on if anything went wrong. I was fully in charge of my learning and forced to become independent and problem solve using the resources around me in Beirut. 

Ski field at Laqlouq, Lebanon
Skiing at Laqlouq

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

As I said above, I had to rely on my local resources in Beirut. This meant that I was often asking professors and students around me for help (schools outside of the U.S. have their own ways of functioning that can be frustrating, but if you go with the flow and continue to ask questions, everything ends up working out).

When I initially arrived to AUB (and if I ever had a serious question) I would start by visiting the Office of international Programs (OIP) and get their advice on how to handle a particular situation. After I adapted, I continued to seek OIP’s advice, but in conjunction, sought the advice of my advisors and classmates as well. 

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

This is a difficult question. I’m not sure I would have changed anything about my experience at AUB. However, if I have to highlight something, I might say that I wish I hadn’t spent all of my time in the library during my first semester. There’s so much that the country has to offer so, stay focused on studies, but make it a priority to go outside the city a couple times each month. 

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

The first and second year of my program varied so much that I think it’s best I describe a typical day during my first year, and a typical day during my second year.

First year: I would wake up around 7 a.m., have some coffee and breakfast, do a bit of studying/class preparation for my afternoon classes, go to the pool and swim some laps, have lunch, attend a class or two, and then head to the library and stay there until 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. It was frustrating for me that AUB’s library closes around 10/11 p.m., but this was something that I had to adapt to. I learned to study earlier in the day (I was a night owl during my undergraduate years and often wouldn’t leave the library until 2 or 3 a.m.).

Second year: I would wake up around 6:30 a.m., grab a quick breakfast, head to my lab/roof to check my experiments, enter data, work on writing my thesis, grab a quick late lunch, work more in my lab, play some tennis in the evening, and then walk home and hang out with my roommates and cook dinner. 

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I enjoyed being active during my free time. Activities often included: swimming in the sea/pool, playing tennis, playing football, grabbing ice cream, going to the movies, grabbing a drink at a pub with friends, hiking, skiing in the winter, and visiting old cities and beaches on the weekends. 

Seedlings growing on a rooftop in Beirut
On the roof with one of my thesis seedling experiments.

What was your accommodation like?

During my first semester, I lived in a shared dorm with a wonderful Lebanese graduate student. However, I wanted to have more freedom and be able to cook and host friends for dinner (in the dorms at AUB, women are not allowed in men’s dorms and men are not allowed in the women’s dorms).

Thus, during the rest of my time at AUB I lived in an apartment on Bliss Street that was about a five minute walk from campus. During my time in the apartment I lived with mostly Europeans, who were either working in Beirut or attending school at AUB, and could see the Mediterranean Sea from one of our balconies.

The best aspects of living in the dorm at AUB was that we had constant power and internet, a clothes dryer (most places in Beirut only have a washing machine, if anything), an immediate group of friends, and dorm mates that I could rely on for cross-cultural help and advice for how to best transition into Beirut culture. In addition, while living in the dorms we had a weekly cleaning lady, and if anything broke in the dorm building, maintenance people would come and address the issues (even if this meant catching massive hairy spiders that inhabited the shared bathrooms!).

It was also nice to feel very safe and secure while living in the dorm, as the campus is gated and there are 24-hour guards on duty who are allowed onto the campus. Lastly, it was nice to live on campus so that I didn’t have to carry everything I needed for the day around in a backpack, because I could go to my dorm room between classes and athletic activities.

Conversely, living in an apartment for the last three semesters of my program was great. I had more freedom, and felt that I had space to separate myself from the “AUB bubble” that sucks you in when you live on campus. I was able to cook a lot more in my apartment and hosted a variety of dinner parties with my flat mates (both genders/gender-neutrals were allowed to attend which was not allowed in the dorms).

In addition, I had a lot more space in the apartment and was able to learn a lot more about places and sites to visit from my foreign, adventurous flatmates. All in all, I’m happy that I lived in the dorms to begin my AUB schooling adventure, so that I could become comfortable with the culture, and then was happy that I moved out of the dorm to conclude my studies and branch out more.  

Ruins in Baalbek, Lebanon
Visiting ruins in Baalbek with friends.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Participants should know that they have to be in charge of their own learning. Don’t wait for deadlines to approach, figure things out early because life takes take a bit longer to accomplish in Beirut than you might be used to from the U.S. Ask a lot of questions and read up on the country and culture prior to departure, so that you can get the most out of your experience. 

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

My time abroad has given me lifelong connections. I have friends from Lebanon that I hope will come and visit, and I have a better understanding of what it means to be a global citizen.

Furthermore, I feel I have a greater appreciation for the media and now know, more than ever, that the U.S. media has a way of putting negative or exaggerated angles on current events in the Middle East. 

Would you recommend AUB to others? Why?

I would definitely recommend my program to future students because being abroad while getting a master’s degree not only equips one with research tools for life, it also educates students on a different culture from their own. This intangible aspect of my education at the American University of Beirut far outweighs any experiences I would have had, had I pursued graduate studies in the U.S. 

You have a rich and extensive background in environmental studies. Why is ecosystem management important to study?

Ecosystem management is more important than ever to study for several reasons. The world has a finite amount of resources from which humans can draw to create value-added products. The population of the world is growing and the amount of our resources available is constant.

This is especially the case when considering populations in developing countries, countries that are known to consume vast amounts of the Earth’s resources. If we don’t learn to adapt and manage our resources, the planet may not be able to cater to the growing demand we’ve placed on it. Thus, we need to have an understanding of how to manage our resources so as to get more output from our input. 

Hiker in Bcharre
Touring/hiking around the Bacharré area in the fall of 2014.

What different or new lab opportunities were you afforded at AUB?

In many labs, students are directed to perform experiments that build on the previous and current work of their advisors/professors. Fortunately, my advisor believes in student-directed learning. Thus, although my research on roof top gardens wasn’t in line with my advisor’s previous research, he was eager to help guide and support my research.

In addition, I was fortunate to have a second advisor who offered support to both my main advisor and me, since we were working in unchartered territory. Apart from some material donations from Cedar Environmental, my research did not receive any outside funding. It was exceptional that my advisor still agreed to go along with my project and use his funds to construct and transport the rooftop garden structures to support my study. 

Lastly, labs at AUB generally have less than ten students (in my lab there were about three of us) so each student is given a lot of individual support from their advisor. Although my research wasn’t related to what professors were currently studying, I was determined to find advisors at AUB to support my research goals and educational aspirations. I feel privileged to have had a large amount of support while completing my master’s degree.

What are your biggest lessons learned about the environment you inhabit?

One of the greatest lessons I have learned about the global environment so far is that citizens are increasingly interdependent. All ecosystems need to be managed using a collaborative approach, with the involvement of a variety of stakeholders.