Samer Kawak Samer finds himself in the UAE after travelling from the Wabash University in Indiana, USA, to continue his chemistry degree.
Miranda Sumey Known as Mandy to her friends, this 20-year-old is pursuing a degree in computer science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington DC, USA. So, first and foremost, why study here? Martina: Well, both Tobias and I have Arabic and Arabian culture classes, and we were both looking to get a real-life experience. American University of Sharjah was the only real university that has a partnership with us. It’s well known in the area and so it was an easy choice for us to come here and continue our Arabic studies.
Tobias: It was always our intention to see something different and not just [study in the] US.
David: I’m an international studies major with a focus on the Middle East. My university like us to go abroad because, well, if you’re going to study other parts of the world you should travel. My choices were between Sharjah and American University Cairo – and everybody goes to AUC. In fact, I was the only person to apply here this semester from my school. But that was cool, I asked around and I was told Sharjah is different – I might not have the best time, but I’d certainly have the most interesting time, and that’s what I wanted.
Samer: My college loves its students going to study abroad in their junior year. The reason I chose AUS specifically was because I know Arabic, but I never learnt how to read and write, so this was an opportunity to study at one of the American Universities – American University Cairo, American University Beirut or American University Sharjah. The reason I chose AUS was because it did the chemistry class I needed to take to finish my major, but then I got here and they cancelled it! But it’s okay – I don’t regret the choice. It’s definitely, like David says, an interesting place.
How do the academic standards here compare to back home? David: The courses here are a little easier than in the States, but it’s comparable. I mean, if you took AUS and put it anywhere in the US it would definitely be a very respectable school – so there’s definitely no shame in coming here. And I got to take whatever courses I wanted this semester since everything counts just because we’re abroad... I get to take philosophy courses and English courses... So far, my English courses have been really good – they’ve been tough, they’ve been challenging and I’ve learnt a lot. And my philosophy teacher’s awesome. Philosophy is probably one of my favourite classes that I’ve taken in college so far.
Martina: We had some requirements because as we’re business majors they wanted to continue our business education, so we had to take one finance class, as well as marketing and management. And the fourth one we chose elementary Arabic – to learn it again…
Tobias: …because we started learning it in Germany.
Because the UAE has such a high expatriate population, have you found it difficult to truly immerse yourself in local culture? If so, has this been a detriment to your time abroad here? Samer: I’m originally from Syria, I go there almost every summer. In comparison, when you come here, it’s ‘Arab Light’ – ‘Diet Arab’. But I don’t think this is a detriment. It all depends what you came here for. If you came here for the culture, you’re not going to get as much as you want. But if you come here for the experience of living with the Middle Eastern people – the diversity, meeting new people – you can get it here.
David: I suppose the only negative is that it hasn’t been great for my Arabic. Because everybody speaks English and everybody likes speaking English.
Martina: Even the Arabs speak English with one another because one is from, say, Jordan, one is from Oman, the other is from Egypt, and they just laugh at each other’s accents, so they just speak in English!
Samer: I know Arabic, but when I speak to someone in the Gulf area, I miss every other word just because their accent is so thick.
Is there much interaction with the local students? David: We tend to hang around together.
Tobias: But I think we’d start mixing more if we were here for longer than one semester.
Martina: But we have international room mates – mine is from Sudan. I like how the students come from all over the world – there are Iraqis, Iranians, Indians, Egyptians…
Because you’re foreign students, are you treated differently by staff? David: Well, being an international [student] gives us a good excuse: ‘I’m international! I didn’t know better!’
Martina: But sometimes it’s true! What are the benefits of studying in the UAE? Martina: Back home in Germany, our university is a small one. The class sizes are small, which is very beneficial. The fact that they had small classes here as well was a big plus – you have more contact with the professors, you can ask questions, you can learn things more easily. This was also the reason I picked my university back home – because of small classes.
David: When I first started looking into going abroad, I’d actually never heard of AUS. It’s not really famous. Everyone knows Cairo and Beirut – they’re the really famous ones in the Middle East and they’ve got good reputations too. But when you talk to anyone who knows about the region and education here, they always have good things to say about American University of Sharjah. Though it takes time to find, it’s worth it.
Samer: I actually feel like my college was using me! I asked them about studying in Dubai and they were like, ‘Dubai? Yeah, yeah, do that’, because they wanted the publicity of a student going to Dubai. Also, when I say I’m studying abroad, I don’t say I’m studying in Sharjah, because no one knows where it is. So I just say I’m studying in Dubai. In that sense, I think that it’s a very attractive choice.
Martina: Also, for me, the UAE is a perfectly safe place. On campus, I feel safe – there are so many guards…
Was safety was an issue when you were considering where to go and study? Martina: For me as a girl it was, yes.
Tobias: And for a boy too! It was an issue. Honestly, if I told my Mum I was going to Syria to study in Damascus, she’d be like: ‘No you’re not.’ But the UAE is the modern Arab world… ‘Arab Light’, as we say.
So is the UAE an easy place for a student to live? Martina: You need a car to get around, that’s the only thing.
David: Yeah, if you get a car, it’s really easy.
Has studying here whet your appetite for living and working in the Middle East? Mandy: No. Personally, as a girl, I’ve found it a lot less easy to live than as a guy. I’m just not used to being told I can’t do things because I’m a girl. I play American football. I wanted to play American football so badly and they wouldn’t let me because I’m a girl and it’s a boys’ team. And we couldn’t watch the Super Bowl together. The guys didn’t have a problem, but they wouldn’t let the girls out to watch it.
What other difficulties are there for foreign female students here? Mandy: The dress code. I’ve gotten in trouble… they tell me [I’m inappropriately dressed] but, in my eyes, I’m dressed conservatively right now – but if our security guard saw me right now, she would probably tell me that I wasn’t. This has happened twice to me personally and she’s even told my roommate that she’s keeping an eye on me because I’m American and I’m more likely to violate the code!
David: You’re being racially profiled!
Samer: [Laughing] How does it feel?
Martina: I’m really worried – today it’s really hot, I’m melting. I can’t imagine what I’m going to wear in June!
Samer: No, really, guys don’t have it as bad as girls.
Tell us about curfews… Mandy: That’s the worst part!
Samer: Just to point out, this is exclusive to AUS. The curfew is based on the college. If you have an apartment [off campus] you’re fine but if you’re in the dorms, then you’re under curfew.
When is the curfew? Martina: Midnight during the week and 1am at weekends.
Mandy: When I was talking to my study-abroad coordinator before I came here, we only had two programmes at my school in the Middle East – here and AUC – and in the past 10 years, we’ve sent 60 or 70 kids to Cairo and only two here. And I really didn’t know why. She was encouraging me to go because we hadn’t sent enough kids here at all but when I came here, I realised there are a lot more curfews here than Cairo.
So you all live on campus? Samer: Yeah, we didn’t know any better!
Martina: Living off campus requires a car. But we have everything we need on campus; it’s beautiful and we can walk to class. We don’t have to leave! Are there any opportunities to get work experience in Dubai? Tobias: Yeah, I tried to get an internship this summer for L’Oreal.
Mandy: Right now with our visas we’re not allowed to, but if we were [to be offered a placement] we could get a work visa.
Is this something the university helps you with? Tobias: Yeah we have Doctor Linda Angell the international exchange manager. If there’s any problem we can talk to her and she can handle it.
David: We can’t get on-campus jobs, which really sucks. I asked around but they wouldn’t let me get one because I’m first semester and an exchange student. There’s a rule, if it’s your first semester you can’t get a job, which was a downer because I’m poor!
Has living in the UAE been easier or harder than you thought it would be? David: Easier!
Tobias: Definitely. I was prepared for a culture shock and it never came. We have a lot to do, we’re out every weekend.
Mandy: I think it helps that we came out with a really good group. There were eight or nine of us…
David: It’s strange, a lot of people out here are really bored – the local students – and they ask: ‘Why did you come here? What’s wrong with you?’ And we’re like, ‘What’s wrong with you? We’re having a blast!’
Okay, last question: If you had the option, would you stay for another semester? David: Yes.