DOHA, Qatar — When Amy Kristin Sanders’ students at Northwestern University’s journalism program here wanted to learn more about the protests following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Sanders did what any good instructor would do: She put together a two-week mini-course on the shooting, complete with readings on the larger economic and social issues surrounding it.
Then she piled her students onto an airplane and took them to Ferguson.
Sanders and her students flew nearly 7,500 miles last summer to Missouri and spent two weeks in residency at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. They interviewed locals shopping at the farmer’s market, toured areas where protests broke out and swarmed around Ferguson’s tiny city hall. They sat down with Ferguson’s part-time mayor, James Knowles III, an old college classmate of Sanders’.
“I think they had some pretty striking observations, based on their own personal experience,” said Sanders, a St. Louis native. “It opened their eyes to the fact that media coverage everywhere struggles when it comes to race and diversity.”
The reporting trip exemplifies the kinds of opportunities that have quietly taken shape at the small group of American universities that have come to this burgeoning Middle Eastern country over the past 15 years or so, where they’ve helped create an eye-popping complex on the outskirts of Doha known as Education City.
As globalization advances and young people in this oil- and gas-rich region hunger for a western-style education, U.S. universities have not only brought it to their door, as in other cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They’ve brought just the specialized slice that sets them apart from competitors: Northwestern has exported its flagship journalism and communications programs; it joins Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Mellon’s sciences and business administration programs, Texas A&M’s engineering programs, Virginia Commonwealth University’s art history and design programs and Weill Cornell’s medical college.
The schools, as well as others from Europe and the region, occupy a so-called “multiversity” laid out on a 2,500-acre campus northwest of central Doha. It attracts students from more than 70 countries. Created and underwritten by the Qatar Foundation, which has close ties to the Qatar royal family, Education City has reset educators’ expectations about what’s possible.
Northwestern arrived here in 2008 and rents space from Carnegie Mellon while it awaits completion of its own palatial building across the quad. Designed by New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, the sprawling modernist building will open in late 2016 or early 2017, and will be unlike anything most ink-stained reporters ever experienced in college. Predock has said the sustainable, limestone-clad, state-of-the-art building will feature “inner spaces that are sheltered, verdant and oasis-like, while the exterior is still quite rugged.” It’ll also be sturdy enough to withstand daytime temperatures that can reach 130 degrees F.
In an era when the outlook for American journalism, and journalism education, is generally bleak, the outlook here seems downright cheerful. “Academics never expect to be operating out of these palaces,” Everette Dennis, the Northwest program’s dean and CEO, said.
A media veteran whose resume includes stints at the Freedom Forum and Columbia University, Dennis has spent much of the past 40 years on U.S. college campuses, where “a kind of lethargy” has often set in, he said. In that sense, the Doha experiment is unprecedented. “There’s an enormous air of optimism,” he said. “There’s a chance to really experiment and build new institutions, which is almost unheard of elsewhere.”
Patti McGill Peterson, presidential advisor for global initiatives at the American Council on Education (ACE), a Washington, D.C. association that represents U.S. college presidents, has visited Education City twice in the past few years. “There was no other country in the region that wanted to do something that ambitious,” she said.
Mohamed Abdel-Kader of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, said he visited students at Georgetown’s foreign service program in 2013 and was impressed by the students’ poise, their ability to articulate complicated positions and by “their depth of knowledge of international issues.”
Across the region, Abdel-Kader said, education “has been elevated on the agenda. … For some of these nations, that were founded in the ‘70s, they’re spending to build infrastructure, and in some cases to play catch-up.” Just as in the United States, he said, educators in the Middle East realize that students there not only compete with students from around the region — they compete with students from the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, China and Japan, among others.
Sanders, 36, the journalism professor, left a tenured position at the University of Minnesota in August 2014 to teach here. She has not looked back. “This is my dream job,” she said.
Friends and colleagues called her crazy, but she said she left a pressurized university system in which quantity of research trumped quality, classes of more than 200 undergraduates were the rule and she never seemed to have enough time to mentor students. In Doha, she has small classes of just a few students and is actually encouraged to spend time with them. “I come to work every day feeling that I make a difference, and that is an amazing motivation to want to excel. I had lost that at Minnesota.”
In August 2014, when the Michael Brown story broke, Sanders was standing in the St. Louis airport with her husband, waiting for their flight to Doha and her new job. Once she arrived here, she began following the news back home.
“It struck me to see the national and international press covering my hometown in what I thought was a very outsiders’, parachute kind of perspective. It struck me, once I got to Doha, that that’s how a lot of my students feel about Middle East coverage.”
Northwestern graduated its first class in 2012, and this fall about 40% of students are Qatari, according to its latest annual report. They’re “hands-down more diverse” than at Northwestern’s Evanston, Ill., campus, Sanders said, “both economically and culturally.” She and others said it’s not unusual to teach a class that mixes wealthy Qatari royals with the sons and daughters of middle-class professionals and foreign-born day laborers.
What’s probably more significant: 76% of students are females. And unlike at Qatar’s flagship university, students of both sexes attend class together. Sanders said her young female undergraduates arrive with “a desire to be independent and self-sufficient, a desire to want to do things that make them feel good, in the sense of getting joy and pleasure out of work, and to really want to contribute to society in a meaningful way.”
In a society where Muslim women often go out in public covered head-to-toe in black, she said her young undergraduates want to be “more than just mothers and wives.” “For the first time, we’re getting a generation of female students in this part of the world that more uniformly believe they can make a difference, that their voices matter and can be heard,” Sanders said. “In that regard, it’s not that different from what I experienced as a young girl in the United States 25 years ago.”
And she said her classroom discussions often have a kind of vitality that’s missing in many U.S. classes. “I teach free speech,” she said. “We talk about pornography. We talk about obscenity — we talk about blasphemy.” In a country with no real tradition of a free and independent press — stories in the English language press are often simply dolled-up press releases — she and others said teaching the basics of journalism is challenging but rewarding.
“The traditions of asking questions and being insistent on answers, it’s not as usual here,” said Mary Dedinsky, the journalism program director. “You have to push a little bit, but they pick up in a hurry.”
What students lack in savvy about a free press they make up for in any number of ways. Many speak two or three languages, follow world news and politics and are hungry to make a difference. As Doha grows rapidly, they’ve taken on investigative projects, probing a 2012 mall fire that killed 19, including 13 toddlers at a daycare center.
Others have looked into the abuse of maids. Desperate to get the frightened women to talk, one of the students, a Doha native, hit upon the idea of bringing her mother along to a shelter. The mother told shelter officials that they needed to let the students in. The shelter relented and the students were able to talk to maids and report on their charges.
“They’re pioneers,” Dedinsky said of her students.
Another student, an American from Cleveland named Zach Hollo, took a look at the poor working conditions among guest workers. He focused on a young Nepali cab driver who hadn’t been paid in nearly four months. He eventually found a home for it in the United States, in the Wilson Quarterly.
“It immediately went viral” in Doha, Dedinsky said.
Reached in China’s Hunan province, where he’s currently teaching English to middle schoolers, Hollo, a 2015 graduate, said he felt “extremely lucky” to attend NU-Q, as it’s called. His classes, taught in English, were “almost exclusively” built around topics pertaining to the Middle East, but he was interested in these and welcomed the small classes.
“At NU-Q, we were taught news and feature writing, photography, and documentary filmmaking,” he said in an e-mail. “And we learned to blend these three methods together to craft multimedia stories. I think this is definitely where journalism is headed, so I feel like I have been adequately prepared. Also, I feel very fortunate to have been in Qatar instead of the U.S., because I got to cover the Gulf migrant labor issue, a topic of global importance. In Evanston, I might have just been covering sports games or club meetings around campus.”
The school also invests heavily in getting students’ English up to speed, he said, with a dedicated writing tutor and student assistant to help students improve their written English. But students here still must operate within a system with tough communications and libel laws. Qatar is a monarchy — criticizing the Emir of Qatar or speaking ill of the prophet Mohammed is illegal.
“It’s certainly not robust freedom of the press,” Dennis said. But media outlets push the edges. Stories, such as Hollo’s, of guest workers’ conditions, are now “thoroughly aired,” he said. “Ultimately you need a robust regime of freedom of expression … and recourse in the courts,” he said. “And that’s not really true here at this point. It’s an unfinished system, as far as I’m concerned.”
Many Northwestern alumni have gone on to communications jobs with government agencies, with a mission of making them more responsive to the media, Dedinsky said. “They go in there and they say, ‘Hey, guys, when you get a question, answer it.'” The demands will undoubtedly grow with the upcoming FIFA World Cup, due to arrive here in seven years. “The expectation is that there are going to be answers,” she said.
But how far to push the system is tricky business. “We’re not here to change the society,” Dedinsky said. “We’re here to teach the students, and if they want to make those changes, they can make those changes”, USA Today reports.