Tamara Drenttel Brand - Graduate Program Alumni

What early experiences sparked your interest in the Middle East?

I was a women’s studies and political science major in undergrad. For a “Women in Public Policy” class, I had to write a paper and I chose to write it on Afghan women’s lives under the Taliban regime. Keep in mind, this was in 1999 when most Americans couldn’t even tell you who the Taliban was. I was outraged that these atrocities were occurring, and yet were being ignored by my government and the media; no one seemed to care and it really angered me.

Participants of the Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program at the American University of Beirut

All of the participants of the Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program I implemented at AUB - April 2012

You already had multiple degrees under your belt before you decided to pursue a degree at the American University of Beirut (AUB). What attracted you to study at AUB?

My husband and I met in our previous MA program (near Eastern studies). When we began looking through graduate programs (me for my MPH and him for his Ph.D. in history), we were excited to see that the AUB offered an exciting opportunity for both of us. Since our goal was to focus on the Middle East in our careers, (Tylor on Lebanon in particular) the AUB, with its resources and reputation, was a no-brainer.

What cultural characteristics surprised you most when you first arrived in Lebanon?

I had studied Arabic in Fez, Morocco during my senior year of my undergraduate program, so the only Arabic dialect that I knew when arriving to Beirut was Moroccan. Needless to say, speaking Moroccan Arabic in Beirut didn’t work as well as I thought it would. For those of you not familiar with Arabic, spoken Arabic can differ drastically between Arabic speaking countries. In the case of the Moroccan dialect, the vocabulary was not only comprised of Arabic, but French, Spanish and Berber as well.

I was constantly humbled by the genuine kindness and hospitality offered by my Lebanese friends and neighbors. When my mother-in-law came to visit us in Beirut for the first time, all of our neighbors told her, “Don’t worry about Tam and Tylor, we love them like our own son and daughter and will take care of them for you!”

Woman taking a picture in Greece

A passion for photography - Greece, June 2010

What was your favorite part about living and studying in Beirut?

We were right in the middle of everything. We could never afford a car as students, but Beirut is a small city and we were able to get around via walking, service, or buses. I loved that I could walk outside and go pick-up fresh fruits and vegetables. When I was out walking, I would constantly be engaged in conversations. It’s hard to be crabby when people are constantly asking how you are doing and smiling when they see you.

Beirut really does have a small-town feel to it. I left my coat at a grocery store and a few hours later, my doorbell rang. One of the employees had come over to drop off my coat, on his own time. He found out where we lived by asking someone who knew someone who knew someone; you know how that goes.

It’s cliche, but Lebanon is a very beautiful country. We had a blast exploring it and had just as much fun getting lost trying to find our destination as we did when we arrived. You really can literally ski in the mountains and swim in the sea on the very same day. Beirut is very central, and as a result of our location, we were able to do quite a bit of traveling in the region.

In comparison to the other universities you’ve studied at, what made studying at AUB unique?

In the MPH program, we did a lot of collaborative group work. Many of my classmates were nutritionists, physicians, nurses, etc. and we were able to learn a lot from each other due to our different backgrounds and diverse experiences.

One of my favorite things about studying at AUB (and among the most beneficial) was the opportunity to get out of the classroom, apply our theoretical knowledge to practical situations. and engage with local communities.

Mother holding her baby in Beirut, Lebanon

Me with my son Eli (he was about one week old in this picture) at Robert Moawad Museum, Beirut - June 2011

During your master’s degree program at AUB, you developed an incredibly successful Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Training Program and founded a private mother-to-mother breastfeeding support network on Facebook. How did these two initiatives come about?

My second year of the MPH program, I found out I was pregnant. At the same time, I started researching breastfeeding. In Lebanon, where the majority of water sources are contaminated and breastfeeding rates are among the lowest in the region, it really is a pressing public health issue. As a new mother, I also learned firsthand how important and effective peer support can be and how much lactation knowledge and support are lacking in Lebanon.

As I worked to set up a peer to peer lactation network as part of my final MPH practicum, I discovered how amazing peer to peer support could be, both in helping new mothers to succeed and in empowering the mothers who were helping by sharing their experience and offering encouragement and support. This same philosophy guided me when I decided to set up my own mother to mother network on Facebook, Mama To Mama Beirut, which to date has over 2,600 members worldwide and has helped untold thousands of mothers and their children.

How supportive were your professors and advisors throughout your degree program?

I was incredibly lucky to have such supportive, wonderful advisors and professors, particularly Dr. Jihad Makhoul and Dr. Tamar Kabakian. They always made time for me when I had questions, concerns, or was excited about a new idea for a project. They were passionate and very encouraging with my career objectives, even allowing me to create (and sponsor) my own non-traditional practicum, which has turned into a full career for me.

Tamara Drenttel Brand and family in Arizona

Family portrait, Phoenix, Arizona - June 2014

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

I really wished I had more time to study (and practice) Arabic. I wanted to take Arabic classes when I first arrived at AUB, but the MPH program is set curricula, quite demanding, and I just didn’t have the time. At AUB, it’s hard to practice Arabic when everything is in English. If I could do it over, I would’ve loved to move to Beirut and take a year to study and practice Arabic before starting the MPH program.

What do you think the biggest misconception is that people have of Lebanon? What is the reality behind this misconception?

That Lebanon is very dangerous and unsafe. To be frank, as a woman, I felt safer in Lebanon than I did in some of the neighborhoods that I lived in America. I was never even a victim of petty crime (pickpockets, purse snatchers, etc.) that I worried about in Europe. In fact, my wallet fell out of my purse without my knowledge at TSC and low and behold a man came running after me to return it. My husband and I chose to have a baby and to spend our son’s first few years in Lebanon. We encouraged friends and family to come visit us in Lebanon.

Now that your degree is completed, how has it impacted your career goals and professional ambitions?

My MPH degree gave me hands-on, practical knowledge and experience, tools which I use on a daily basis. I’m currently a member of the Board of Directors for Nurture Project International, a new NGO focusing on safe infant feeding practices in emergencies. Right now we’re focusing on refugees in transit and intend to expand out to other countries in the region where there’s an influx of refugees, like Lebanon and Jordan.

How about your outlook on the world as a whole?

Everything I've experienced, both negative and positive, has shaped who I am today. Life is truly is what you make of it. My new philosophy that I'm currently incorporating into my life is to have absolutely no regrets.

Community breastfeeding class in India

A community breastfeeding class being taught with lactation training and curricula I developed for Bella Health Clinic in Dharampur, India

You are now living and working in the UAE with your family. What do you miss most about life in Lebanon?

We were incredibly blessed and fortunate to have made wonderful friends. Our friends literally became our family and we miss them terribly. In the UAE, you have to drive everywhere and everything is in a mall, even grocery stores and coffee shops. We miss walking around a city!

What advice do you have for students heading to Beirut?

Save your money! Beirut can be an expensive city to live in until you figure out how to live frugally. Ask the department that you're applying for to connect you with current students and DO take advantage of this. I’ve had several American students thinking of applying to AUB email me with questions, concerns, etc. and I was able to provide them with a realistic, balanced point of view, both on academics and life in Beirut in general.