AQF Views & Voices: Policy & Practice

AQF Views & Voices: Policy & Practice

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What is it like to study abroad as an Arab secondary school student?

Rafia Aldhahouri

When I was first told that I was going to be sent to summer school in the United Kingdom (UK) for work, I was extremely excited and nervous at the same time! I was excited to experience another culture but it was my first time traveling abroad alone.

As part of our College Preparation Program, the Al Qasimi Foundation, where I am the Student Programs Assistant, has been sending select grade 11 students abroad for summer English language and college preparation courses. The program, now in its fifth year, prepares students for competitive university study overseas or in the UAE.

After a highly competitive selection process, students are sent to either the United States or the UK to complete a three to four week program to improve their academic English and life skills. I attended the summer program so that I could experience what its like for our students to study abroad, which has helped me better support them and answer any questions their parents may have.

The program I attended was at the Lewis School of English in Southampton, England, a city in the heart of the UK. I was enrolled in an adult program and at the same time, four students funded by the Foundation were enrolled in a program for secondary school students. We studied six hours a day, went on chaperoned field trips, and attended lots of social activities with our fellow international students from around the world. 

Based on my experience, I highly recommend that secondary school students preparing for university study overseas attend an intensive summer program. I believe that they will both enjoy the experience and truly benefit from it. To help students and their families decide on and prepare for studying abroad, be it for the summer or for university, here are some tips and considerations for success.

Safety:

Many students and parents are nervous about how safe it will be for them to study abroad alone, especially female students. In my experience, and that of past students, the Summer Overseas Program is very safe. 

Students are dropped off at the airport by Foundation staff and then are picked up by their university or school. Students studying at a university can leave campus with a chaperone or in a group, but never alone. Those studying at an English language school stay with a host family near to their school and may need to take public transportation to and from class. At both the universities and English language schools there is always staff available to support the needs of the students and address any concerns they have.

The first time I took public transportation I was nervous, even a bit scared, as I was a foreign Muslim women traveling by herself. But my host mother went with me, showed me where the bus stops and which bus to take. She also taught me how to get a bus ticket and what the schedule was. My fear of people treating me differently or of receiving unwanted attention quickly vanished as I was treated like everyone else. No one paid attention to me, unless I had a question or asked for help, and then they were friendly and helpful.

School:  

The Al Qasimi Foundation College Preparation students can study at either a university or English language school for between 3-4 weeks. Students that study at a university can take a wide variety of college preparation courses that help prepare them for their future major. 

It is important that students meet the academic and behavioral expectations of their program, so students should remember to:

  • Not check their phone during class! If you have your phone with you during class, make sure that it is on silent and that you talk with your parents about when you will be available to talk.
  • Be on time! Good attendance shows respect (it is rude to interrupt class when you are late), helps you learn more, and is good practice for college, where your attendance will impact your grade and your visa status.
  • Check your schedule! Class times and rooms numbers may change so it is important to proactively stay informed.
  • Make new friends! Do not spend your whole time messaging your family and friends back home. Your fellow students will be from around the world, so this is a great opportunity for you to practice your English and make lasting friendships. Hang out with your classmates during breaks, lunchtimes, and after class to learn more about their culture (and teach them about yours!). Also, try and go on as many field trips as you can.

The Homestay Experience:

Both the students and I opted for homestay accommodations. This meant we lived off-campus with local families while we studied. I stayed with a wonderful family that was a very generous host. At the beginning, the homestay was the part I was most scared of. I was not sure what to expect, and thought that it could be uncomfortable. I knew the Foundation would only send its staff and students to reputable places, but I could not help fearing the unknown! Turns out, this was the best part of the experience.

If you stay with a host family they will be qualified and vetted, religiously tolerant, and great cultural ambassadors who are available to help you through any situation that may arise.

Living with this wonderful family was truly life changing. Staying with a host family genuinely gives you a more immersive experience of the local language and culture. It was the first time that I was responsible for myself and I loved every part of it. The other students from the Foundation also had very positive experiences living with their host families in Southampton.

Religious Considerations:

I was surprised at how much halal food there is in the UK! It was not a problem to find halal food options, and my host family even served halal meals for me. I was never discouraged from praying and my school even had a prayer room. My host family and friends respected my boundaries, and were curious about my culture, religion, and perspectives. While not all schools may have prayer rooms, all of our students have been able to make time for prayer.

For more information on the College Prep Program or the Overseas Summer Program click here, call +971 233 8060, or email info@alqasimifoundation.rak.ae.