Four Emirati students head to US as Fulbright scholars

Four UAE students will attend universities in the US after being awarded Fulbright scholarships.

Left to right: Rashid al Marri, Awatif Yahya and Butheina Kazim will join Arif Ahmad (not shown) as Fulbright scholars this summer. Pawan Singh / The National
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ABU DHABI // Butheina Kazim has hiked 120km in the Himalayas to raise money to build an orphanage in Nepal.

Rashid al Marri cofounded a volunteer-run organisation that provides video production equipment and training for at-risk children in the West Bank.

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Awatif Yahya has worked in Germany, Algeria, the Middle East and the UK as a marketing and human resources professional for the past 10 years.

And Arif Ahmad has already studied marketing and commerce on two different continents.

Now these four can add a new distinction to their CVs - Fulbright scholar.

The soon-to-be students, all Emiratis, will travel to the US this summer to earn postgraduate degrees at American universities, all studying either media or business.

"For we four Emiratis, this will be a unique experience for us, like landing on the moon," said Mr Ahmad, a 28-year-old Dubai native who will study marketing at Webster University in St Louis, Missouri.

"We will be able to go to the US and help raise recognition for the UAE for more than just business and large buildings. I want to help reduce tension between cultures," he said.

The Fulbright Programme, a competitive international academic exchange operating in more than 155 countries, was created to help bolster cross-cultural ties.

"The original premise still stands, and that is the idea of fostering mutual understanding, leadership, learning and communication around the world," said Stephanie Sandoval, the acting public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi. "It allows Emiratis to be ambassadors of goodwill to the US and teach Americans about Emirati culture."

The programme has awarded grants to 11 Emirati students since being launched in the UAE in 2006. This is the first year that four students will be sponsored.

Ms Yahya, 38, said she looks forward to an "enriching experience".

"I'm looking to gain a lot from the experience, but at the same time, I want to share and help break down barriers," said Ms Yahya, who will study for a master's in business administration at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, California.

"I want to share the story of how we went from a desert to what we are now."

The four were selected from a pool of dozens of applicants, officials said, and the number of interested students is on the rise.

Amideast, the organisation that administers the scholarship across the Middle East and North Africa region, spreads the word at universities and through business partnerships across the emirates, seeking "a very high calibre of student".

"We don't look for somebody in particular when it comes to GPA or test scores," said Hanan Abdul Hadi, a programme coordinator at Amideast in Abu Dhabi. "We want somebody who is strong holistically, who is charismatic, motivated and a self-starter."

For Ms Kazim, a 26-year-old media professional and film producer, the time abroad will be about exploration, education and exchange. "Being a woman, being an Arab, being a Muslim, I want to be able to bring across as many insights as I can," she said.

"I definitely want to come back here and bring back what I've learnt, and I want to contribute."

Ms Kazim will pursue a master of arts in media, culture and communication at New York University in New York City.

But for two of the scholars, the two years will not be entirely foreign. Mr al Marri and Ms Kazim produced an independent documentary together last year.

The film, called Letters for Palestine, screened at the Dubai International Film Festival.

"I thought at first of going to film school, but that didn't seem likely because there's no film industry here," said Mr al Marri, who will be studying for a master's in media studies at The New School, in New York City.

"I thought, 'I'm in the middle of the desert. What can I do?' But then I saw my peers, Emiratis like me, making films. How did I not know this crowd even existed?"

All four award recipients said they plan to return to the UAE after graduation. Mr al Marri, 25, plans to make films, Mr Ahmad wants to become an executive, and Ms Kazim wants to continue working in media. Ms Yahya hopes to run her own restaurant someday.

"There's a bigger benefit than going to study or reading books in a library," Ms Yahya said. "It's working with people and collaborating and sharing ideas, and I feel proud to be a part of that process."

The application process for the next round of local Fulbright scholars will end next month, and nominations will begin by the autumn. For Ms Sandoval at the US Embassy, seeing the programme expand in the UAE is an accomplishment.

"The whole idea of an exchange programme is to build stronger person-to-person relationships, because that's what builds friendships," she said. "And we're incredibly proud to bring this programme to the UAE."