Model citizen of the world
“Like my grandmother told me, ‘If somebody does something bad to you, put it behind you. If somebody has done something good, put it in front of you,’” says Rabi Mohtar.
The saying, one of his grandmother Gharra’s favorites, speaks to an optimism and generosity of spirit that is practically palpable upon meeting Mohtar, who is this year’s recipient of Purdue’s Agricultural Research Award. The annual honor is bestowed by Purdue Agriculture to recognize a scientist who has done excellent research and made contributions toward agriculture, conservation of natural resources, and people’s quality of life.
Mohtar is not only a “world leader in soil and water science,” according to USDA scientist Mark Nearing, but also is a highly regarded teacher, an accomplished tango dancer, and a dedicated family man to wife, Samia, and son, Jad, born in 2006.
Born and raised in a modest household in Beirut, Lebanon, Mohtar knew he would have to work hard to achieve his dream of a good education. College wasn’t an option without financial help, so he applied for and won a competitive scholarship that allowed him to attend American University of Beirut.
When Mohtar arrived, the university had no student government. His solution: He set up the first student council and was appointed the first student representative to the university’s president, Malcolm Kerr.
Some problems were beyond his control, however, as Lebanon remained embroiled in a brutal civil war throughout his college career. “Ninety percent of the time we paid attention to our studies and did our own thing, but we were always aware of the war,” he says.
It was hard not to be. Due to intermittent violence, Mohtar sometimes spent the night in friends’ dormitories instead of going home. He learned to be prepared, though, and this inconvenience became routine.
And yet, nothing — not his relentless focus on his studies and his extracurricular activities or his dedication to friends and family — could serve as preparation for the senseless violence nor prevent it from hitting disturbingly close to home.
One afternoon, Mohtar visited a friend’s dormitory, surprised — but not at first concerned — that no students were walking about. A man’s loud voice jarred him into reality, telling him to take cover because nearby buildings were being shelled. It took him a moment to locate the speaker, a security guard crouched beneath a desk. Mohtar quickly retreated to a nearby basement and, as if on cue, the shelling resumed.