40 years ago, George Merhej came from Lebanon to study as an international student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, without knowing how to read, write, or speak English, and having to pay for his tuition completely on his own. Despite the challenges he faced, he graduated with a bachelor’s in architecture and fine arts and has now settled down in this town he fell in love with.
While living in Lebanon, Merhej found an office that would help find and contact a university for their clients. Merhej had specified that he wanted to go to school somewhere warm in the south, and it had to be a place where he could study English. At the time, UL Lafayette was accepting students from around the world into their international student program, even if they didn’t know any English.
He was given a few options, but settled on UL Lafayette because it was the cheapest tuition-wise and because it offered a program called English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) that was held in H.L.Griffin Hall. Merhej recalled the diversity of the classroom, and how it was filled with roughly 30 or 40 students from all over the world.
“None of them speak English. It was like a babble, I mean it’s unbelievable the chaos,” Merhej said. “At one time a young boy and a girl fell in love, they like each other and they wanna speak. She doesn’t know his language and he doesn’t know vice versa. They don’t know each other’s language, so they find someone who will translate to them.”
Their professor would bring them to the McDonald’s near campus and taught them how to order food and used it as a good way to practice English. Students would study English, then go into the classes for their majors.
Merhej wasn’t a citizen or even a resident at the time and wasn’t eligible for any kind of scholarship. He paid his tuition out of pocket without any kind of financial assistance. He worked two full-time jobs, while also taking at least 20 credit hours every semester.
“I only sleep a few hours every night. Really, because I want to succeed, I want to do well,” Merhej said.
But despite that, Merhej still looks back fondly on his years at UL Lafayette.
“I’m 64, from the day I was born until now, the best years of my life, the 5-6 years I spent at UL,” Merhej said. “Those were the best years, I was so happy getting an education, meeting people, working.”
He stayed in Lafayette and worked for the city in the planning department, before eventually opening a business. Although some of Merhej’s friends from college moved back to their own country and were able to use their education to secure well-paying jobs or positions in high places, he fell in love with Lafayette and chose to stay. Despite being a citizen, Merhej said he feels like a foreigner anywhere outside of Lafayette, and this is where he is most comfortable
“They have everything you need, and still everybody knows everybody, like a small town atmosphere,” Merhej said.