Draped over a wall in Antoine Aoude’s Mar Vista apartment is a large Lebanese flag.
Naturally, the 19-year-old SMC student is proud of his national heritage. But this particular flag has “special meaning,” he says, “because everyone on the construction site signed it.”
Antoine is referring to the worksite near the port of Beirut, where he spent six months leading volunteers in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion.
The catastrophe made international headlines. Triggered by a fire in a warehouse where 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored, the August 4 blast killed more than 200 people, injured 7,000 and left an estimated 300,000 Beirut residents homeless.
Like many of his countrymen, Antoine volunteered in the massive international effort to rebuild. But by late September, Lebanese students were heading back to school, and local volunteers were returning to paid employment. The economy was a shambles.
Beirut’s rebuild couldn’t wait, however.
“We had to put the windows and the doors back before the first rain in October,” Antoine explains.
Antoine decided to stay on. He’d been set to start his electrical engineering program at SMC in fall 2020, but “I was one of the few people who could just defer my enrollment to spring.”
Which is how Antoine, then just 17, came to be the project’s youngest team leader and task manager.
'Kid' on the Construction Site
“They needed someone who spoke French, English, and Arabic,” he says, explaining his promotion. Though young and inexperienced, Antoine was good at shouting instructions in three languages through a face mask. Translation skills became essential to communications between volunteers, who were mostly Europeans, and the Arabic-speaking construction crews.
Antoine had also proved himself by showing up rain or shine. At daily briefings and around the job site, he made himself indispensable. Short on cranes, the project relied on volunteers to carry hundreds of bags of cement and cinderblocks to rooftops. During peak activity, 300 construction workers and 150 volunteers were on duty at the main port worksite, where 33 buildings were in progress. Antoine oversaw up to 70 volunteers a day. Sometimes he also managed volunteers at the nearby destroyed fire station.
His youth became a running joke. In November, he led 30 Team Rubicon volunteers from Norway all in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
“I was ‘the kid’ on the construction site,” he says, with a chuckle.
But there was nothing childish about his work ethic. Even after an outbreak of COVID-19 sidelined the Norwegians, Antoine kept on volunteering. He never earned a dime.
“Things were moving quickly. In six months, we rehabbed most of the 33 buildings on that site,” he says, with satisfaction.
Try Something New
Antoine grew up in the coastal town of Zouk Mikael, about 10 miles north of Beirut. His father works in the travel insurance industry; his mother runs an export business specializing in Lebanese artisanal products, such as the spice, zaatar.
The oldest of three children, Antoine attended French schools for his secondary education, and he came “very close to going to France” for college. Admitted to his first-choice French university, he changed his mind after an LA-based family friend persuaded him to “try something new.”
Antoine had been to France many times: it’s a short puddle-jump across the Mediterranean. He’d visited the United States once in 2015—but only the East Coast.
His first glimpse of California came last spring. By then, he was already carrying a full virtual course load at SMC with a general engineering pre-major.
On the Ground
In Santa Monica, Antoine hit the ground cycling. His very first purchase was a bike. He pedals everywhere—even to the gym, where he goes mostly for spin classes. He also enjoys chess, hiking and listening to vintage French music.
In May, he became a peer mentor with the International Education Center, attending Tuesday open houses and Friday “mingles” that have him interacting—still via Zoom, for now—with students “from all over the world. We have people join us from Myanmar and Sweden. It’s insane,” he says.
Antoine is also active in the International Student Forum, where he’s currently club delegate and eyeing a run for the presidency. His wide social circle includes classmates, ISF friends and fellow IEC peer mentors. There’s also Southern California’s large Lebanese community.
Fun fact: “We have more Lebanese people living abroad than in Lebanon,” Antoine says. “I discovered I have family in LA and in Houston. I’m always invited for Sunday lunch.”
When he isn’t working his 15 hours a week as a peer mentor, Antoine is usually studying. His 17-unit fall schedule consisted of Calculus 2, General Physics, General Chemistry 1,
English 2 and Communications 11 (public speaking).
All but one of those classes was in-person.
Antoine rhapsodizes over the delights of face-to-face learning.
“English class is magnificent!” he says. “We have group discussions with the professor as the facilitator. And I love doing math on-ground: the whole flow of it, having people next to you. The professor is right there. You can interact with him. It’s beautiful!”
The informal manners of SMC faculty surprised Antoine.
“I remember the first time I messaged my English professor. She answered me in an email with a smiley face. I was shocked. I mean, in Lebanon we don’t even have the professor’s email address,” he says.
Another thing that surprised him is LA weather. “It’s freezing,” he says, bundled in a puffy jacket inside his apartment on a sunny November day. Accustomed to Lebanon’s hot-humid summers and stay-inside winter culture, Antoine still can’t get his head around California’s year-round outdoor living scene.
On a Quantum Computing Quest
He’ll have to adjust, though, because he’s staying for a few more years at least. Antoine aims to transfer to UCLA or Cal Poly in 2023 as an electrical engineering major.
From there, it’s anyone’s guess where he’ll land. Graduate school is a definite possibility.
Antoine is intrigued by quantum computing. “From protein folding to breaking encryption, it’s going to shake things up,” he says, “and I want to be there, be part of it. I’m looking at which universities are going to have the best quantum computing program. Some are going in big.”
Just as in Beirut in 2020, Antoine intends to make himself indispensable.
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SMC in Focus Volume VII, Issue 6
A Builder from Beirut
STEM of Success
Giving Thanks & Empathy, in Action
Coming Back, Looking Forward