A Student’s Journey From Beirut to Durham

Kanaan comes to Duke from Lebanon, where she met students who were teaching SAT skills as part of a DukeEngage program.

-By Amanda Solliday

Duke Global · Interview with Nour Kanaan

In fall 2019, Duke University welcomed nearly 1,200 international graduate, professional and undergraduate students from more than 80 countries to the Durham campus. International students make up 11.5 percent of the university’s current freshman class.

One of these first-year students, Nour Kanaan, decided to apply to Duke after meeting DukeEngage students in Lebanon in summer 2017.

The Duke students were working with Palestinian refugees through the Unite Lebanon Youth Project, a nonprofit that offers educational programs to marginalized communities. Kanaan’s grandparents left Palestine for Lebanon as refugees in 1948.

During the DukeEngage program, Kanaan took an SAT course to help prepare her for the college entrance exam. She studied with Jake McCarthy, who is now a senior at Duke. From McCarthy and the DukeEngage SAT program, Kanaan says she first saw a glimpse of American education.

“It was only a period of eight weeks, and I felt so mature after that,” Kanaan says. “So I thought, ‘If eight weeks can give me so much, what could an education of four years give me?’”

She found the entrance exams both challenging and exciting. The essays stood out to her – she had never done any of that type of written personal expression before.

“I loved just being able to explore my thoughts and think about things I’ve never thought about and having to write about them,” Kanaan says.

When the time came to learn whether or not she was admitted to Duke, Kanaan stayed up until 2 am to see the decision as it posted online. Beginning a half-hour before the information would appear, she began to give herself a pep talk.

“I said, ‘OK listen. If you didn’t get in, you didn’t expect to get in, anyway,” Kanaan says. “It’s OK.”

It felt “amazing” when she saw the acceptance notice.

She arrived at Duke for her freshman semester having never seen Durham or the campus. She says it felt a little too easy at first, and then homesickness set in. Now, she’s back to feeling comfortable.

“What helped was people and the culture of kindness,” Kanaan says.

She’s decided to focus on studying human nature during her time at the university, either through a major in psychology or neuroscience or a field she’s yet to explore. Her interactions with her DukeEngage tutor helped shape that goal.

“For me, I was really concerned with human empathy in others, growing up on one side of a political conflict – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – and being so cautious of the other or the West, in general,” Kanaan says. “And meeting someone from that side, for the first time, it was really a moment of personal growth.”