Education City gives Qataris second chance

Doha// Muneera Al Qahtani spent most of high school socializing and enjoying herself. She was a “screw-up,” she says, and her teachers told her she was unlikely to amount to much.

But she summoned the will to graduate, zipped through a preparatory program and now earns top marks in engineering at Texas A&M University-Qatar. When she has time, the 20-year-old visits Doha secondary schools, using her turn-around as inspiration.

“You may not be a great student in high school, but you can change and do well in university if you work for it,” she told the students of Al Bayan Independent School for Girls this week. “Basically if you plant a seed it will grow.”

Nearly a decade old, Education City recruitment efforts are starting to bear fruit – sparking greater local interest, drawing young women into engineering and shaping Qatari success stories.

Over-achievement may be in Ms Al Qahtani's blood. Her father, Saad Saeed Al-Qahtani, grew up in a Bedouin community outside Doha and worked as a shepherd for years. When learning the alphabet, he used charcoal for a pen and stones for paper.

At 25, he started attending night school at the sixth grade-level. He graduated at the top of his class, received a government scholarship and earned his law degree at age 38, in 1993. Today Mr Al Qahtani is chief prosecutor in the government Office of Public Prosecution and the father of 13 children.

One of Ms Al-Qahtani's older brothers is a judge, while two others have law degrees. Two sisters have engineering degrees and work for RasGas.

Yet Muneera appeared to be the black sheep. Throughout primary and secondary school she rarely opened a book. “I saw school as a place where I go and play and see my friends,” she said. “It was like a picnic all day long.”

The shift began toward the end of her junior year, when she chose science as her future major. Her teachers advised her against it because it might too difficult for her. “That is the moment that told me there is no one who can say what I can and cannot do,” she said.

Around that time came another push. “My father told me, 'Either you choose a pencil or a broom,' which is basically you go study or you become a maid,” she recalled. “He said if you want respect you should finish, and I wanted that respect.”

She graduated and went into Qatar Foundation's Academic Bridge Program, which prepares students to attend Education City universities. She asked questions in class, visited her professors during office hours and dedicated herself to learning English.

“I started rebuilding myself, letting go of my childish ways,” she said. She scored so well on her English as a Foreign Language exam that Texas A&M invited her to attend a special engineering course for top students.

Last month, she completed the second year of a four-year program in electrical and computer engineering, a major she chose because she likes math and physics and wants to build something that helps people communicate.

She has become so committed to her field of study that she watches Japanese anime to steep herself in the culture of the world leader in electronics.

“She's quite enthusiastic, very interested and everything is done on time,” said Dr Hussein Al Nuwiri. The head of the electrical and computer engineering program, he taught Ms Al-Qahtani's classes in digital system design and computer architecture. “She's like an ideal student.”

She's not alone. In the US, Canada and most western countries, about 18 percent of undergraduate engineering students are female. At Texas A&M-Qatar it's more than twice that, at 40 percent.

The result is an empowering environment for young women. Though she wears the niqab, Ms Al-Qahtani has the confidence to speak up for herself and lead group discussions. When she heard last November that an Education City outreach program planned to visit her old school, she asked to come along.

She spoke about her father, her struggles as a student and her future career. “I want them to know they can do whatever they want,” she said of the high school students. “And I added a little flavour about the money you make as an engineer – most people like to hear that stuff.”

At least one observer came away impressed. “When we're speaking they hear us, but not completely,” said Maha Al Thani, recruitment and outreach coordinator at Education City. “When Muneera is speaking everybody is quiet and listening and giving their full attention.”

Ms Al-Qahtani has since come along on several other school visits, including the one to Al Bayan on Thursday.

“I thought her presentation was really good,” said Loolwa, a Qatari and Al Bayan 11th grader. “I'm definitely interested in Education City, I think I'll go to Carnegie Mellon and study business.”

Mariam, an 11th grader from Egypt, earns top marks at Al Bayan and wants to study medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “I would love to go there,” she said. “But I'm worried I won't get in because of the competition.”

Other girls asked about the co-educational system at Education City. They had never taken classes with boys and their parents were unsure it was a good idea. “Don't worry, the boys are not always flirting and throwing their numbers,” Ms Al-Qahtani said. “They are here to study, just like you.”

She plans to earn a master's degree in engineering, then return to work for Qatar Foundation, which is sponsoring her education. For Ms Al Qahtani, it's an organisation that understands that dress is not destiny and that everyone deserves a chance.

“Whatever you wear, it does not say who you are,” she said. “If you don't go after your future, you won't get any respect.”

an edited version appeared in the 11 June 2010 National, www.thenational.ae

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