Undergraduate Research in Syria – A call for Action

Over a year and half ago – and prior to my enrollment at Illinois Institute of Technology, I was doing a challenging project for my junior year at the Arab International University in Syria. Briefly, the specific problem which my colleagues and I sought to address was to automate a Green House environment and allow its control via text messaging (SMS) .

Our efforts required a great deal of library and internet based research as well numerous meetings with my team. Unfortunately, it was not easy to meet everyone regularly due to the dangerous commute throughout the semester. Skype or other means of virtual communication were unavailable to us and so we often had to excuse ourselves from class attendance in order to meet in person – when it became safe for all of us to travel. We were under a lot of pressure because of our semester deadlines. But we did it. We presented our results to our fellow students, and our project was regarded as a great success and the faculty was impressed with our work.

Fast forward to September 2013, and with the situation escalating in Syria, the circumstances for undergraduate students to pursue independent or collaborative project based initiatives or research grows increasingly difficult if not impossible at times.

Bright, talented and ambitious undergraduate students are now faced with even adversity – fewer resources, a declining number of students and faculty who can readily assemble to pursue intellectual inquiry, and significantly reduced connectivity to fellow peers, and the regional and global community of researchers and scholars.

It is not easy to feel that your future is slipping away; so much is no longer in the control of individual students, their peers and their faculty. So many undergraduate students feel helpless, and too many feel hope slipping away from them in terms of the contributions that they once imagined making for their country and academic disciplines. Three years ago, so much seemed possible. We dreamed big. Today, however, the struggles that my peers and I confronted seem minor relative to the challenges presented to my former classmates and friends – and faculty.

I am grateful for the opportunity for me to complete my education at Illinois Tech but studying abroad is not an option for everyone.

It requires a great deal of financial resources even when generous scholarships are provided. Increasingly, family financial reserves are very limited especially now because of the growing economic pressure that is forced upon all of us by the war.

And for those who cannot leave the country to finish their studies, this should not be the end. Looking back, it was the challenge that made us work even harder to make things work. We refused to believe that we cannot do it, we refused to stay home despite the dangerous location of our university, and so did a lot of other students.

Independent research and project-based inquiry represent some of the best form of learning for undergraduate students. Given the circumstances of war, online courses and other internet-based resources provide wonderful tools for a small set of students in Syria with access to the internet.

While necessary, this connectivity is insufficient for the preservation and advancement of the intellectual foundation for Syria’s future.

I am under no illusion that the current state of higher education in Syria will change drastically very soon, and I recommend that we all accept this as our current reality. In speaking with individuals in Germany where I am now pursuing advanced research, in New York City where I interned this summer at Goldman Sachs, and at IIT where I am currently a 4th year students, there are a great many people who would suggest that simply “wait until Syria returns to normal.”

This is our normal, and we must act from this point.

First, we need regional and international faculty members and industry researchers to volunteer to serve as eMentors for undergraduate students. Second, we must enlist international funding and support for projects for Syrian students – specially women – with promising ideas; small seed monies would certainly be of a great help for them, and a sign of international support. Third, we are grateful for the growing numbers of universities providing scholarship assistance to Syria students. However, we need this level of engagement to increase significantly, we must achieve a new momentum for learning. And again, we need this support especially for women. Fourth, we need more global institutions to begin to provide credit and, where possible, formal certificates, for the independent work of students (undergraduates and graduates), in addition to reviewing it and helping them overcome any obstacles. Fifth, at IIT we are working together with all who will join us to document, preserve and nurture the scholarship of current undergraduates in Syria; our goal is to create a permanent archive of current research projects and inquiry-based learning as a knowledge hub and exchange. We each have our own responsibilities to which we will be judged.

The motivation that I see among my friends and family in Syria pushes me every day to fight harder for this.

It is devastating to see our country to go through so much, but we are not giving up on the coming generations and their education.

It is a fact that internet connections are not reliable or always available in many areas in Syria. It is, however, unfair to assume that no one has internet and give up on them all. We cannot move the whole generation abroad, but we can try to give them as many resources as possible, and motivate them by crediting them for their work.

Finally, we must always remember that while too many students of all ages – from elementary school through university – remain in harms way from attacks from the air and ground, from too much illness and insufficient food, from too little shelter and warmth, and from the abuses of torture, rape and terror, it is also true – and we must not forget this – that thousands upon thousands risk everything to learn more, where a young child stays up through the night to complete an extra assignment, where a university student cross battle grounds to learn with faculty and peers, and where students give up scarce food so that others may be full.

There is a hunger for learning and change in Syria that will not be silenced or squelched under any circumstances.

Surely, we can, and must, do more. Right Now.


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