GoAbroad Interview

Megan Scanlon - Enrollment Advisor

Megan Scanlon - Enrollment Advisor

Megan began working for the American University of Beirut in 2012. She completed her undergraduate studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and went on to earn a master’s degree in international education at New York University. She is based in New York City, where she is an active volunteer at the Bronx Documentary Center, frequent contributor to the DOC NYC and Stranger Than Fiction blogs, and recently received her yoga teaching certification from Yoga to the People.

You have a master’s degree in international education from NYU. What inspired you to pursue a career in international education?

Hands down, studying abroad in Vietnam is where it all started. Though I must give a shout out to friend and former Green Mountain College coworker, Sheena Loughlin, who is the reason I even learned that “international education” was an actual field, as well as to my GMC family who continued to teach me about the world.

President Fadlo Khuris inauguration in Lebanon

International students celebrating President Fadlo Khuri’s January 2016 inauguration

In considering my study abroad options as an undergraduate at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS), I wanted an experience completely different than anything I knew, and Vietnam fit the bill. I experienced what I like to call a neurological coup d’etat, because everyday life in Vietnam overthrew my existing worldview. For example, Vietnamese traffic at first seemed like a chaotic haphazard mess; the sea of motorbikes challenged my idea of order, space, and capacity. I was witness to bikes carrying families of five, crates on top of crates of chickens, or stacks of mattresses that easily weaved around pedestrians.

My initial fear and hesitation crossing the street was a protective measure; I was figuring out how to navigate a new environment. Over time I learned that my fear and hesitation kept me in the same place, kept me from moving forward, and that if I wanted to experience what the city had to offer, I’d have to start by rolling through, around, and with the traffic to get to the other side of the street. There is, of course, a metaphor here…

At the end of the semester, I traveled to Thailand. I wanted to stay in Asia for Christmas and into the new year, but my (loving, wonderful) parents were not having it. So on December 17th, 2004, I said farewell to a region of the world I had a tremendous affinity for. On December 26th, back in the U.S., I sat glued to the TV, absorbing the shattering blow of the 2004 tsunami. It had destroyed Koh Phi Phi Island, the place I had just left. The indifferent weight and velocity of water had literally annihilated any sense of place that had just existed.

Close up of Lebanese sweets

Lebanese sweets

The devastation of the tsunami emphasized for me, a stark reminder of the fragility and vulnerability of life. At the same time the swift and expansive recovery efforts were a model for intelligent cooperation, fueled by compassion and community, demonstrating the powerful capacity for resilience and spirit that is the DNA of human experience.

There exist so many differences in the lives of people around the world, between cultures and within. But nature is indifferent to class, religion, and gender.

Even though I couldn’t know it then, being in Vietnam and Thailand directly impacted my fascination with and circuitous path to international education. My experiences made it very clear that no one lives on an island, and what happens in one country has ripple effects all over the world. There’s no arguing with John Donne, “For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know, For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.”

How did you end up working for the American University of Beirut?

At HWS, I took every class I could with the incomparable professor Gebru Tareke. He piqued my interest in Lebanon and the Middle East. He stressed the importance of looking at stories about the region beyond the mainstream, and since then, Lebanon had occupied a little spot in my brain that said, “you need to go here.” I jumped on the opportunity when the Director of NYU’s International Education program sent out an AUB job announcement that sought a person with an international education degree (a job looking for an international education degree is akin to spotting a yeti; possible, but rare).

Qurnat as Sawda, Lebanon

Qurnat as Sawda, the highest point in Lebanon

What is your best piece of advice for international students considering study abroad in Lebanon?

Get involved! Lebanon has so much to offer. It’s the ultimate place for foodies, the art scene is fascinating and wholly encompassing, the views from the mountains are unparalleled, and there are treasures to find everywhere no matter your interest.

Get to know your AUB people. Take advantage of the amazing trips set up by the Office of International Programs, from Public Health to Engineering to History to the Center for Civic Engagement for Community Service. These people are gamechangers. Talk, rather, listen, to the people that serve you.

Volunteer, not as a one off, but decide if you want your experience to be mission based or as a way to build skills, or both. Attend any and all exhibitions put on by Dar Al Mussawir, which cover topics that range from female prisoners in Lebanon to screenings of short films made by youth in the region.

I could go on all day, so providing anyone is still reading this and wants to learn more, the New York Office is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Your ninth trip to Lebanon is approaching. Looking back, what surprised you most about the local culture and environment during your first visit?

Jasmine. I had never smelled REAL jasmine before, only synthetically sad imitations. Lebanon’s national flower blooms throughout the country and there is nothing like walking through a warm heady pocket of jasmine in Lebanon. Seriously.

Friends sitting along the coast in Byblos, Lebanon

OIP Trip to Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

You are quite active in the film world in NYC. Are there any films you’d recommend students watch prior to studying abroad in Beirut?

I tend to lean towards broader themes that can be applied in various contexts, so along that vein I recommend anything by the late great Al Maysles. I had the opportunity to hear Maysles speak at the Bronx Documentary Center after a screening of Gimme Shelter, a documentary about The Rolling Stones. He said, “We need love in our films, in our television, in our media...too much of what we see is a way to get away from life rather than make a connection with it." I also recommend Sunshine Superman by Marah Strauch, because it’s impossible to leave that film and not be excited about life.

We’ve heard AUB’s campus is extraordinarily beautiful, what do you think makes studying abroad at AUB special?

AUB is an anchor in the community FOR and BECAUSE of the people that walk through its gates.

From my perspective as international staff, I’m constantly learning and relearning, and am amazed by the people I have the opportunity to meet from Lebanon and around the world. Meer is my go-to for Kurdish education. Yasmin told me stories of growing up in Yemen, a country with a rich history and one that is suffering. Jihane is one example of Lebanese hospitality that goes above and beyond, opening new doors of travel and insight on every trip. Moe’s acumen for medicine and philosophy is brain bending. And no trip is complete without coffee and conversation with Captain Shalak.

What captivates me are the new insights that emerge from conversations with dedicated students, staff, and faculty who lift me out of context, get me to think, alter and add to my perspective, and reveal new layers of the world to me.

Greenhouse in Jounieh, Lebanon

An accidental greenhouse find in Jounieh

Why should students choose AUB over other universities in Europe?

You’re not going to learn about the Middle East in Europe.

Frank Sinatra sang about New York, “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere.” That is false. I love Frank, but if you can make it in Beirut you can make it anywhere, and I say that as a New Yorker. After four years of working with students from start to finish, there is a transformation that occurs in their ability to navigate the world, problem solve, and ask great questions. In many complex situations, enough questions aren’t being asked. The insights gleaned from time spent at AUB equip students with the tools to implement ideas into practice, or to have the humility to scrap everything they thought they knew and revisit the situation.

In an ever-changing global political environment, how does AUB properly prepare for unexpected emergencies and ensure student safety?

AUB is a model for resilience in part of the world that has seen much too much instability, and our official statement and preparedness is a testament to AUB’s commitment to the region and beyond.

Why do you think study abroad is important in the world today? 

Because we change when we study abroad. Studying abroad gives people an opportunity to explore and play with personal limits, and see how others around the world do the same thing. 

We as humans crave both stability and transformation. An interesting thing about our brain is that it operates to keep us safe. When we try something new that is wildly unfamiliar and challenging, the brain says “whoa, I don’t know how to live here.” The influx of new sensations can be thrilling, but also overwhelming. Choosing to study abroad gives people an opportunity to stay, to confront the unfamiliar, and to give the brain a chance to adapt.

We know that diversity and differences are facts. Inclusion, though, is a choice. How we encounter and relate to differences is a choice. How we include, or don’t include, is a choice. And when we commit to the process of staying, then it opens up the doors for learning about who we are, where we’re from, how we relate to the rest of the world, and how we want to choose moving forward. 

Cotton candy food cart on the Corniche in Lebanon

Cotton candy on the Corniche

There’s a growing body of research about the impact of study abroad on the brain and how much we change. New neural connections are made with every incoming sensation and the more we experience the world around us, the more neural connections we make. The more neural connections we have, the more equipped we are to adapt and respond to a variety of contexts. Study abroad is a chance to gather useful information about ourselves, like where our limits are, when we’re past them and need to step back, or when we can redraw the lines of our boundaries.

Studying abroad increases our capacity to truly explore our stability and to expand our potential for transformation. It’s all a balancing act. And balance requires a choice to accept the shaking and wobbling guests that come when we invite change into our lives.

Studying abroad should never be a promise to fix anything, but it does hold the promise to change how we navigate ourselves and the world. As my favorite author Tom Robbins says, “If you want to change the world, change yourself.”