By Marcia Eldredge
August 2014 -- Learning to throw a Frisbee, the kindness and inclusiveness of Americans, and the ability to enroll in a liberal arts discipline at American universities are three of the eye-opening experiences sixteen year-old Ahmed Al Mansoori took away from his two weeks at Brewster Academy. Al Mansoori was one of 42 secondary school students who travelled from Abu Dhabi, the capital and largest of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to learn about American culture and more specifically the U.S. college application process.
This cultural orientation program is under the auspices of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) Scholarship Program (ASP). The UAE has been assisting students with study abroad university scholarships since the 1970s In 2008, the ADIA Scholarship Program introduced a new iteration of its program more focused on the highly distinguished student with a specific interest in finance, economics, or business.
Beginning in the 10th grade, the program begins looking for the best and brightest from Abu Dhabi’s public and private secondary schools. There is no limit to how many students may be selected, but they must commit to maintain rigorous academic standards as well as strong character, extra-curricular participation, and high scores in achievement exams. By the end of the 10th grade, scholarship staff select the highest achievers from this Elite Program, selecting about 60 to continue vying for university scholarships. This latter group is the one that made its way to the Brewster campus in central New Hampshire in mid-August (although only 42 could travel to the United States, with the others attending to previous commitments).
On average, out of these 60 students, about 20 will receive scholarships to attend university in the United States.
To complement the university scholarship program, it was essential that students enroll in an orientation program that would help prospective recipients fully understand the search and admission process to universities in the United States while introducing the young scholars into a culture quite foreign to most of them.
The Brewster-Abu Dhabi partnership and program was developed specifically to offer these students an opportunity to learn if studying abroad is the right choice for them, explained Raylene Davis, Brewster’s Director of Summer Programs and Conference Services. With more than two decades of success with the Thai Royal Scholar Program – a similar cultural orientation and college preparation program – Brewster garnered much interest from the ASP, who committed to bringing their students to Brewster this past February, Davis added.
The goal while at Brewster was to introduce this small group of elite students, who come from a wide demographic swath, to different types of universities, as well as their entrance requirements and expectations once accepted.
“For the Brewster program students are looking to learn if studying abroad is right for them. They visit different campuses, such as Boston University where the campus is the city and Bentley University, which offers more of a closed campus feel, explained Ahmed Saif Al Romaithi, one of the group’s chaperone. “It’s actually opening their eyes to do the research and find what they want from a university and where they fit best.”
“[Being here] helped me to prepare for the university better, strengthened my English, it helped me understand [cultural] differences, and it helped me get over homesickness,” Al Mansoori said.
With a little help from the Brewster Summer Programs Office, Al Mansoori was able to take a trip across the state to visit one of his top choice schools, Dartmouth College. “Visiting Dartmouth and the other colleges really opened my eyes to the liberal arts curriculum, which is what makes American colleges unique to us. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
“What I really like about the Ivy League schools is that they expect you to have a liberal arts education … in the Emirates [universities] focus more on the practical and professional,” he explained. “I haven’t truly found my interest yet. I hope to take internships in both [business and economics] majors and see which I like better. In the U.S. we get to explore different academic disciplines and that ultimately makes you a life long learner.”
He added, “The students [at Dartmouth] have a really high awareness of Islamic students. These small things, like do they have Halal food and can I observe Ramadan, are really important to me.”
He also was impressed with the Middle Eastern cuisine offered and that Dartmouth has its own ski mountain. “I have only skied indoors in Dubai.” With a broad smile and a giggle Al Mansoori shared that the tea and cookie program (served afternoons in the library) has been endowed. “So there will always be tea and cookies at Dartmouth. These are the things you only learn on a tour,” he boasted.
Brewster Classes and Culture
At Brewster the students move through their morning classes in four assigned groups named with some “cultural” significance – at least to New England sports fans – the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins, and Patriots.
Their four morning classes included TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam preparation; writing with a focus on ACT essays; college/culture; and communication where the focus is on American culture, mannerisms, and speaking. Afternoons included roundtable discussion groups and a two-hour block of outdoor recreation, such as kayaking, swimming, canoeing, and of course Al Mansoori’s new favorite, Frisbee.
Through their daily classes and activities there is an emphasis on time-management, preparedness, and American customs and manners. Although learning to tackle the format of the ACT exam and how to write an essay that will stand out to a college admissions officer are topics these students delve into with gusto, understanding a new culture is just as necessary, says Al Romaithi. “Trying to understand how to behave and to be accepted within the culture is important.”
Davis noted that Emiratis come from a polychronic culture whereas Americans are accustomed to a monochronic culture. Timeliness is an essential, inflexible part of American society; 8 a.m. means 8 a.m. In a polychronic culture, time is flexible and not binding so it is acceptable to arrive at 8:30 a.m. for something scheduled for an 8 a.m. start time. “Obviously, if they are to study here they will need to adapt to the monochronic mindset,” she said.
“We got to experience the American culture and we got to experience all sorts of people at Brewster and outside of Brewster,” Al Mansoori said. “Everyone is so friendly and always looking forward to helping you out.”
Although learning the idiosyncrasies of a new culture is important, sharing ones cultural uniqueness is also important, Al Mansoori learned. “I really benefited from writing class and our teacher John Jenkins helped us focus on important features of our Emirate culture that we can bring out to make [our essays] shine. He taught us how to formulate a game plan on how to approach the ACT itself. Now I feel much more confident about the college application process because I feel ready to go back home and write and submit my essay for the common application.”
Not all schools in Abu Dubai have extra-curricular activities so the students especially liked the recreation component of their Brewster experience, Al Romaithi said. They also loved being far from the city in a quiet place and interacting with native speakers, which gave them a lot of confidence, he added.
When asked to share a stereotype of Americans, Al Mansoori reluctantly admitted that he came here thinking that Americans were more exclusive than they are but that was not his experience once getting out in the community. “The first time I tried [ice cream at] Bailey’s Bubble random strangers would just come up to me and ask questions … you feel like in this community people really want to get to know you and where you come from.”
After two weeks and a few walks into downtown Wolfeboro for ice cream and crepes, Al Mansoori and 41 other students returned to Abu Dhabi with an insight into U.S. colleges and their requirements and offerings, a more informed knowledge of American culture, and maybe at least one Frisbee.