Dubai: A group of students in the UAE who were at risk of missing university due to financial reasons are currently pursuing their degrees online — thanks to a UAE foundation that stood by them in spite of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mohamed Estwani, a Syrian expat in Abu Dhabi, is one of the nearly 1,000 underserved Arab and Emirati youths who have been provided with full scholarships at partnering universities in the UAE and beyond by the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) since 2015.
Estwani, 26, is pursuing an online master’s degree in health-care innovation from United States-based Arizona State University (ASU). The second-year scholar, who works in the medical supplies sector, said the pandemic pushed him to become more “resilient”. He added: “We were able to overcome the challenges of supplying vital medical supplies and equipment — ventilator, beds, monitors, lights, etc — and prepare a field hospital despite the restrictions and challenges. We were able to utilise existing resources and refurbish few to operate them during that difficult period. That is in addition to maintaining surgical supplies to emergency cases with new guidelines for surgery.”
After graduating, Estwani wants to work as a product innovation manager or entrepreneur in the medical equipment industry. He is part of Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Programme (OLSP), established in 2016 in partnership with ASU and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide access to online learning at the master’s level for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. They include refugees and the children of families who, due to conflicts or disasters in their home countries, reside in the UAE and other Arab countries temporarily and find it challenging to access education.
Focus on science
Meanwhile the Al Ghurair Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) Scholars Programme provides access to university level STEM subjects in collaboration with leading universities. One STEM scholar, Mohamad Al Najar, is studying industrial engineering at American University in Sharjah (AUS). The 19-year-old Comoran of Palestinian origin is currently developing a start-up that he aims to launch by the time he graduates.
“I started researching engineering since high school as I loved Physics and Math. I was inspired by popular successful entrepreneurs who have degrees in engineering such as Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX. Not only did AGFE provide financial support, but they also keep updating me on new internship opportunities and skill-building events,” said Al Najar, now in his third year of bachelor of science.
Push the boundaries
Another STEM scholar, Sherif Ismail, who is an AUS student as well, wanted to pursue mechanical engineering and hopes to “push the boundaries” of this field one day.
“Mechanical engineers are responsible for building the world from the smallest nanotechnology to society’s largest constructions such as buildings, cars, and space stations. For me, it is the mother of engineering since we learn how to design and build solutions to tackle a range of problems and improve efficiency across a wide range of industries. I really love this field and I believe one day I will push the boundaries of it,” said Ismail, 19, who is from Egypt and lives in Fujairah.
Both the AUS students are studying online until further notice. Ismail, a third-year bachelor of science student, is currently also trying to sell his 3D-printed “objects” and aims to launch his own company while pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Need to innovate
Meanwhile, another OLSP scholar, Walaa Hatahet, has joined ASU virtually as a first-year healthcare innovation student in the master’s programme.
The 27-year-old Syrian, who lives in Abu Dhabi, said she plans to work in an innovative role. “COVID-19 has made me realise how key innovation is, particularly in the health sector. Seeing how the healthcare system had to adapt quickly to make sure that care was not interrupted made me realise how unique this programme is ... Not only has [AGFE] given me the funds to pursue my higher education but it has provided me with great tools to ensure my success and has connected me to a network of great people,” Hatahet said.
Getting jobs, degrees
Once the scholars graduate, they will join more than 200 others who have graduated from both AGFE programmes, with a quarter of them being UAE residents, over the past five years. Since its inception, the foundation has supported scholars from 17 Arab countries and has partnered with 16 universities. Around 84 per cent of the STEM scholars who graduated before the COVID-19 crisis went on to join the workforce and some undergraduates continued their academic journey by pursuing advanced degrees.
Despite the pandemic, the foundation plans to continue its support to scholars, said its CEO, Dr Sonia Ben Jaafar. “Our scholarship programmes are open to vulnerable youth from low-income families who cannot afford a university education.
To this effect, 10 per cent of students in the current scholarship programme are refugees or conflict-affected vulnerable youth, while 39 per cent are first-generation students, which means that they are the first in their family to go to a college or university. It is important to note that we are also committed to ensuring that female candidates benefit from our scholarship programme — some 47 per cent of our beneficiaries are female,” she added.
“The pandemic has had a wide-ranging impact on the foundation’s focus, working towards enabling more innovative, accessible online education models for tertiary education in the region. Since many of the beneficiaries come from underserved backgrounds, COVID-19 revealed the stark financial realities and disparities between students in Arab countries who have had to return to a life of heightened social-emotional uncertainty and stress.
“Some of our scholars had to evacuate their student accommodation and return to a home with multiple people or live in a single room with limited internet or electricity access. For the foundation, providing underserved students with internet modems because they live in remote areas became a basic need that needed to be fulfilled fast.”
Online degrees in limelight
AGFE aspires to contribute to the development of 150,000 Arab youth, in addition to preparing and supporting 50,000 Emiratis to enter the workforce and pursue higher education by 2025, Dr Jaafar said. The pandemic has brought to surface the need for online degree programmes, she added.
“Online education options at the university level will provide more flexibility for scholars to pursue their academic objectives and lower the barrier of socioeconomic status for eager young minds in the Arab region. This will be particularly beneficial for refugees and other underserved groups who will have access to quality education, enjoy lower average cost of online offerings and will have the opportunity to work while studying.”
Following the UAE government’s ‘Standards for Institutional Licensure and Program Accreditation’, the AGFE established the ‘University Consortium for High-Quality Online Learning’ in collaboration with the Ministry of Education to support nine leading universities in the UAE in the development and delivery of accredited online and blended degrees.