Two young Emirati women are the latest students from New York University Abu Dhabi to win places at the University of Oxford.
Sheikha Majida Al Maktoum and Amal Al Gergawi are among 12 Rhodes scholars from the university in the past six years.
The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the world’s oldest and most respected awards for international fellowship and academic study. Applicants are selected through a rigorous process, including a written application and interviews.
The two new scholars have grand plans as they continue to broaden their educational horizons. They are determined to return to the UAE armed with fresh skills and knowledge.
Sheikha Majida Al Maktoum, 21, is eager to bring change and introduce policies in the region to support women and gender equality.
She is in her senior year and majoring in political science with a minor in social research and public policy.
“I am passionate about gender equality and gender balance, particularly with women in leadership in the public sphere and politics,” Sheikha Majida says.
"After returning from Oxford I hope to be involved not just in diplomacy but also in public policy, where I want to make sure that there is gender balance in every field.
“I do feel that the UAE is a model for the region when it comes to female empowerment, and so I hope that with the skills I have been equipped with and with the support of my country, I can support other countries.”
But she feels that while the government strongly supports women, more needs to be done to help them remain in the workplace.
“The UAE is an interesting case where we have a high percentage of women in higher education but when you go to the workforce, the number drops,” Sheikha Majida says.
“I want to know what challenges women have so we can remove those challenges and encourage them to stay in the workforce.
“Overall, when they get married and have children they go back to the house and don’t continue, and I think we should start thinking about what to do to encourage women to stay at work.
“I don’t think there is anyone to blame for that. Maybe it is social pressure or a perception that a woman needs to be at home. That’s why I would like to come back and research more.”
Her senior year project will be addressing what inspires political participation among Emirati youth.
Sheikha Majida collaborated with Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, and her university’s adjunct professor of legal studies, Shakeel Kazmi, on publishing a UAE report for the UN.
She also took part as a research assistant in a project entitled the Politics of Women Empowerment: Gender Parity in the UAE, working with the university’s assistant professor of political science, Rahma Abdulkadir, and research fellow Henriette Mueller.
At Oxford, Sheikha Majida plans to pursue a double masters in global governance, diplomacy and women’s studies.
"When I go to Oxford I want to represent my identity as an Emirati and a Muslim woman well," she says.
Sheikha Majida starts her scholarship in October next year.
Amal Al Gergawi is majoring in social research and public policy, with minors in economics and in film and new media.
Her senior year project explores the educational challenges faced by refugee children in Niger, West Africa, and how they can be addressed to help unlock those children's potential.
She recently volunteered at the Brooklyn International High School in New York, tutoring immigrant and refugee students and translating content into Arabic for Yemeni migrants.
In Abu Dhabi Ms Al Gergawi was a policy researcher and worked with a professor to draft a three-year pilot housing and integration programme to help 500 Syrian refugee families settle in vacant apartments in Athens and boost the Greek economy.
“I think my choice of a major quite closely aligns with what I want to do in the future,” she says.
“As a scholar, you have great mobility in exploring gaps within society and solving problems, and this was the field that is most significant to me – to get involved on the research front, the engagement front and the local front."
Humanitarian aid is an issue in which Ms Al Gergawi is particularly interested and looks forward to pursuing.
“I believe humanitarian aid deals with a lot of corruption and a lot of under-funding,” she says. “The growing crisis of forced migration deals with issues such as civil conflict, climate change and other factors that will only increase in the next century.”
She says more discussions need to take place on how to tackle mass migration, its causes and the consequences, particularly from a Middle Eastern perspective.
Ms Al Gergawi wants to work alongside organisations such as the UN Refugee Agency to find solutions and help displaced people.
“We have to start listening to their needs and thinking about how to reconfigure them into society,” she says. “After the Syrian war, we had an influx of 100,000 Syrians and the UAE is a host committee to people from different countries. There is a lot to do but it has to fit into the local context.
"This is a problem I find with academia – that they take a solution and say that they can apply it anywhere. Universal solutions are idealistic and while well intended, don't work for every situation.
“At Oxford, I look forward to pursuing a master’s in philosophy in development studies to build on previous policy research and fieldwork pertaining to the well-being of forced migrants.
"With the growing global crisis of forced migration, the Rhodes scholarship will allow me to engage with a diverse cohort of visionaries committed to the delivery of humane, effective and sustainable outcomes."