RAS AL KHAIMAH // When Khulood Mohamed graduated from high school, she thought her education was over. The youngest sister of a dozen siblings, she had dreamt of being the first in her family to attend college. But when she finished high school, her marks were low and she knew only a handful of English words.
A few weeks after her application to the RAK Women's College was turned down, she got a call. She had been accepted into the institution's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Programme, which offered graduates below the mark a second chance. Ms Mohamed made the most of it and graduated as an A-student in applied business technology in December. "We entered here and we knew nothing about English - we started with ABCs," Ms Mohamed said.
Her high school experience had almost put her off education entirely. "I will tell you about English class," Ms Mohamed said. "I still laugh about it. They would give us 12 paragraphs and tell us 'You will have an exam with three, so memorise them'. So I memorised 12 paragraphs and understood nothing. "We told our teacher, 'We don't understand'. She said, 'It's usual not to understand'." "I can't tell you how many private lessons I took," said Nouf Jalal, 21, a college classmate. "I am the first daughter and they want me to be educated. I was really good at all subjects until Grade 11. But the last year was really unfair."
Instead of being marked throughout the year, the Grade 12 marks were based entirely on a final exam. Ms Jalal panicked. "I got sick. I got scared. I went to the exam but I couldn't write," she said. "At high school, it was a negative environment. They didn't help improve your skills. Nobody cared about you. But here in HCT it's a friendly environment with teachers and staff. The subjects matched my skills."
For Meitha al Mas, 21, high school science filled her with despair. "I studied a lot but I couldn't understand. I just studied alone and I did my best," she said. But her best was not good enough. "When they told me, 'You won't be in college', I felt sad," Ms al Mas said. "Finding work is very difficult for high school graduates. They always want a college certificate." At college, the women proved that they could succeed.
Ms al Mas thrived in business courses. Ms Mohamed, unable to form a sentence in English a few months earlier, won first place in a national public speaking competition. Ms Jalal graduated with distinction. "My friends said we would like to show them that it will not be worthless. We wanted to prove for them and for ourselves that we really wanted to improve," Ms Mohamed said. "This programme helped us a lot. From nothing, to everything. It showed us how to see the world from a different side," she said.
The college does not keep records of how many were enrolled in the programme and the students were treated like all the others. "They are great," said Khadija al Tenaiji, the college work placement co-ordinator. "They are concentrating on their studies and they are using this opportunity because they know that if it weren't for the Sheikh Mohammed programme and their families, they wouldn't have this.
"I noticed that so many of them are talented. It's something they didn't just study at the college, it comes from home. It's personal skills and life skills." Ms al Mas is the first woman in her family to complete post-secondary studies. "It changed their minds about education," she said. "Now my younger sisters can study at college." Ms Mohamed's success in college earned her independence and her brothers' trust.
"It has given my family a different thinking," she said. "We are three sisters with nine brothers. They want to protect us. The first time [we ask] they won't allow us to work, so we have to show them that they can trust us. They are proud now, they want me to be working. I showed them I need this." Finding work has had its challenges, too. "I feel very disappointed after I graduated," Ms Mohamed said. "I thought I would find a job immediately. Real life is a shock."
After graduation, she volunteered for two months in the financial section of the land department. She now volunteers with the Julfar Development Centre, which supports handicrafts and home-based businesses. Ms Jalal plans to earn a bachelor's degree and work part-time. Ms al Mas finished her courses in December and will sit for her International English Language Testing System test in a few weeks.
"If we can't get a job this year, next year we will," said Ms al Mas. "I will be my best." The graduates say that without a college diploma, they would have been lost. "If we go back to the beginning, I thank God and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid for all this," said Ms Mohamed. "He didn't just change students or the HCT. He changed families." email@example.com