Take a wild guess. From which country do you think we get most of our international students?" Lars Eltvik asked me over the telephone. " America," I said rather naively. A pause … and then the marketing manager of the Emirates Academy of Hospitality corrected me. " Norway," he said before inviting me over to the campus to meet the academy's "very international body" of students.
So here I am in their cosy cafeteria facing six third-year hospitality degree students smartly clad in uniform. Except for Roland Boulos from Lebanon, who was born and brought up in Dubai, the rest had come from different parts of the world to take their degree. Two were from Norway and the other three from South Africa, Kenya and Uzbekistan.
So what brought them to the UAE? The country was known for many things, but as a destination for higher education? I didn't think so. That is till I met this set.
From Norway, Ida has been fascinated by Dubai ever since the Burj Al Arab and the other developments came up. With a diploma in hospitality from an Italian university, Ida had worked a bit, but believed she needed to take "a more professional" degree to get the kind of job she wanted. That's when she heard about the Emirates Academy from a friend studying hospitality management in Australia. She read more about the academy on the Internet, sent an email and "got a reply from Lars in Norwegian".
"I had the option of studying in Norway, where the level of education is very high," she says. "It was either four years in Dubai or three years in Norway. I chose Dubai because I believe in the Emirates Academy."
The South African saw an advertisement in the local newspaper and attended a presentation by the academy's principal Ron Hilvert, during his visit to the country. "It was fantastic," she says. "He explained what Dubai was all about and told me about its potential."
In the student interviews that followed, Nirvana was among those chosen. A trip to Dubai with her parents allayed all fears about safety and comfort.
So what does she feel about the emirate now? "I don't think any other place can achieve what Dubai has achieved in a few years," she says.
After high school, Roland's parents were all set to send him abroad for a degree in hospitality management. Their son, however, had a slightly different idea. At a university fair he came to know about the programme being offered at Emirates Academy.
"I thought why travel out, when I can get a degree here," he says. Having already seen how Dubai progressed over the years, he knew the opportunities that could be his once he was armed with a quality degree. "I know how Dubai was 10 years ago and how it is now," he says. "Back then, the Trade Centre was the last part of Dubai. Now …"
Of mixed parentage, Uzbek and German, Khilola relocated to Dubai after two semesters at Switzerland's University Centre Cesar Ritz. She had heard a lot about the academy from lecturers and guest speakers and the credits she had already taken fitted in with that of the academy.
So you transferred from Switzerland, I ask a mite incredulously. "I would not transfer from one university to another just for fun," she replies. "I would do it only for important reasons, and because of the quality of education being offered, its value and worth in the market. At this moment, I feel that Dubai is more to hospitality than any other European country."
"I learnt about Dubai from my brother when he came here for a visit two years ago," says Raha, who took languages in school because he wanted to travel. ("I can speak five languages," he says rather proudly.)
A glimpse of the Burj and the Norwegian-Iranian decided, "that's where I want to be". He surfed the net, learnt about the Emirates academy, and about the hospitality industry in general. "I decided to see if this is the way I want to go." Two-and-a-half years later any doubts he might once have had about joining the hospitality industry have fled.
A family holiday brought Farah from Kenya to Dubai, where she stayed at the Burj Al Arab and the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. With a love for languages and travelling, Farah had always wanted to work in the hospitality industry. "When I heard that there was an academy attached to the properties I jumped at the chance," said the business management degree holder.
By now, it is fairly clear that all six of them are thoroughly satisfied with the way their education is going. Most of them have also decided to build their careers in Dubai. All of them chose to do their 20-week internship at hotels in the city, when they could have gone anywhere in the world.
"One reason," says Raha, "is you want to build relationships here, because you know it's a fast growing market. What's the use of going to Europe if the market over there is going down and the one here is going up. You would rather have connections here because you know that when you finish here in two-and-a-half years, you can be guaranteed of a job."
"There are so many who would love to be in our shoes," adds Khilola.
"The luxury you find here you can't compare to anywhere else in the world," says Farah. Another positive factor is the multi-cultural environment. "Being in the hospitality industry we need to cater to different cultures, and being in cosmopolitan Dubai helps us learn that," she says. "Besides, it is so safe here."
"Coming from South Africa with its clash of cultures, Dubai was a complete change for me," says Nirvana. "It's so tolerant with no discrimination."
So there you have it, a host of positives as against very few negatives, which as far as these students are concerned, puts them in the right place at the right time.
The Emirates Academy of Hospitality is probably the first college to attract so many European students. The academy boasts 35 nationalities among 180 students. Of this the Norwegians are the largest group at the moment. "Along with a school in Australia, we are one of the most popular hospitality schools for Norwegians," says Ron Hilvert, principal of the academy since it was set up in 2001.
The academy's popularity is also growing in Sweden, Finland and Germany. "We are the only college, I think in the Gulf, accredited by the Norwegian, Swedish government," says Hilvert who has 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry. Besides the quality of education and personal attention offered to students, he believes the academy's location in Dubai, one of the fastest-growing destinations in the world, is ideal. "One of the great strengths of the academy is its relationship with Jumeirah International and the growth of Dubai as a hospitality and tourism destination," he says. "I don't know if there is anywhere else in the world where you can graduate knowing that there are so many positions."
Hilvert believes hi