How a special graduation ceremony lifted my spirits

Learning English has opened up new worlds for many people, says Deborah Lindsay Williams

Students of the "English in the Workplace" course funded by NYUAD. (Photo courtesy Michelle Loibner‎)
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When I first started teaching, I thought that education could change the world. Over the years, however, that belief got buried under bureaucracies, committee meetings, apathetic students and the demands of earning tenure. Maybe people don’t need the liberal arts, I started to think. Maybe we should stop thinking about education and just think about “job training”.

That youthful optimism began to stir again when I started teaching at NYUAD: if we brought people together in cosmopolitan conversations that encourage the search for similarity across difference, then maybe, I thought, we can make the world a better place, one classroom at a time. My optimism received another powerful boost earlier this week when I went to a graduation ceremony at NYUAD, although the ceremony did not involve the traditional undergraduates.

This graduation celebrated the students who had completed a 10-week “English in the Workplace” course funded by NYUAD. The students, who work on campus as security guards, shop assistants and drivers, were also supported by their employers, who juggled schedules so that students could attend every class session. Thinking about the logistics of this course, which has grown from a pilot programme with 16 students two years ago to 100 students this year, reminded me that no one fully succeeds alone: we all need encouragement, competition and support.

I’ve been to plenty of graduations, but none lifted my spirits like this one. Perhaps it was thinking about the man in the class who Skyped with his faraway son so that they could do their respective English homework together. Or perhaps it was the impromptu speech from the man who said that his wife wanted him to convey her thanks to the teachers and university for giving her husband this opportunity. Or maybe it was the teacher who told her students that it had been an honour to teach them.

Watching these men and women walk across the stage to accept their certificates, I felt a surge of – well, I think it can only be called hope.

In a world where nationalism, sectarianism and extremism seem increasingly more the norm than the exception, the worlds created in these classes remind me that it is possible for people from different backgrounds to work together and enable each other to succeed. Every person who walked across the stage was greeted with raucous applause, and every photo op was a study in global unity: students from Afghanistan, Uganda, Pakistan, Goa, and the Philippines clustered around their teachers, who were women from New Zealand, Syria, America, Jordan, Egypt, and the Netherlands.

I hear the cynics among you saying “Eh, it’s just a 10-week language course, no big deal”. And perhaps in the huge scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. No one in this group has (yet) solved the problem of climate change or directed a prize-winning film. But six of the people who took this course earned promotions at their jobs, which improves their lives and the lives of the people they support at home.

In the UAE, the word “expat” often connotes the upper echelons of management, or some other white-collar profession – journalist, doctor, lawyer or teacher. “Worker” connotes those who are security guards, store clerks, drivers, housekeepers … it’s a long list. But isn’t this distinction somewhat arbitrary? Didn’t all these people come to this country to make better lives for themselves and their families?

The class these expats just completed wasn’t about job training, although the course may improve their job prospects. It was instead, as one graduate said, a way to “enhance our future”. Another graduate wrote: “I will learn more and widen my experience and knowledge.”

My long-ago optimism suddenly seems warranted: job training alone will not give people the power to enhance their futures, but education will.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her novel The Time Locket (written as Deborah Quinn) is available on Amazon