I will soon complete my ninth year studying in higher education institutions. During this time I obtained my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, and I am now working toward a Ph.D. Having now studied at universities in three different countries, I have developed a picture of a variety of educational systems and how they form a student’s academic skills.
My studies started at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and continued at the American University in Cairo, and now I am based at the University of Sydney in Australia. This experience has enabled me to test the procedures of different systems of education. First was the Arabic system, which depends mainly on indoctrination; next was a system based on American strategies and practices; and the third was based on a British system, focusing on rapid achievement by the student, to ensure readiness for the Ph.D. program.
In the Arab context, the student was expected most of the time to know the prescribed curriculum by heart; that is, to buy the books, memorize the required reading, and present it at the end of the semester. Many professors were disgruntled by this approach, but they would say, “Students do not want to make an effort, and this just suits them.” Of course, there were exceptions. Some professors, especially those who taught subjects requiring a certain amount of critical or creative thinking, would hunt down students who showed signs of energy, and entrust them with tasks different from those given to other colleagues. I have encountered senior professors who have pushed me to ask questions, browse the books and reject the typical answers. However, the problem with this system is that it orbits around the central figure of the professor. This means that the professor often determines the student’s way of thinking and interests, leaving no room for freedom of research and discovery. In this system, the person with the highest academic degree has a position of domination over others.
Later, I moved to the American University in Cairo, where I specialized in teaching Arabic to non-native speakers. This is a field of applied linguistics, unlike my previous literary and theoretical specialization. Here I faced the radical shift of using English as the language of instruction. Shifting your academic language from your mother tongue to a second language is perhaps one of the most daunting obstacles Arab students face upon going to study abroad. In the first weeks, I was struck by a feeling of panic in the face of these new challenges: I felt unable to quickly and efficiently read the required material; I was constantly needing to consult dictionaries, and I struggled to learn how to write academically in the new language. All that left me a little bit frustrated. It took me some time to adapt to the new context, but I managed to solve the puzzle, reprogram my brain and behaviors, get the required results, and end that phase. One of the positive outcomes from that experience is that I learned to focus on clarity and directness in my academic writing. But at the same time, my background in the study of literature helped make my academic writing accessible and fun.
Now I am working to complete two years of preparation to get a Ph.D. degree, in addition to working as a teaching assistant, changing my subject of research, feeling lots of doubt and confusion, re-thinking and re-building self-confidence. Whenever we move from one setting to another, we feel surprised and frightened by the change. We might feel weak, and perhaps a failure at the beginning. We might also suffer from “impostor syndrome,” where, for one reason or another, we feel unqualified to be part of an academic community that seems to know more than we do, and is assessing us according to standards we do not meet.
Still, the difference between the one who succeeds and the one who withdraws halfway is that one of these does not stop trying. We always have to try. We have taken the trouble to come here, so let us give it a chance. And if we really were unqualified, that would become clear sooner or later.
The problem with this British-style system is that it almost abandons the student completely, leaving students to work and research alone, with little guidance from the supervisor. Students must gain all the necessary scientific and specialized skills on their own. This process leaves many Ph.D. students languishing at the stage of finding their chosen area of research, to the extent that you can find students who are in their third year of preparing for a Ph.D. degree and are still working on their initial research plan.
If I had to choose among these three academic experiences, I would choose my experience at the American University in Cairo as the best so far. This is because we received guidance, mentoring, evaluation and training, and these are skills that enable the student to perform both research and academic duties. At the University of Sharjah, I took courses in research techniques and the essentials of documentation, but they were largely non-applied, theoretical courses that did not allow for the variety in disciplines. The training at AUC, on the other hand, was based on direct practical application. At the same time—I felt—there was scope for creativity even in a field like applied linguistics, especially in choosing topics of study and forms of presentation.
Finally, I think I was lucky in being able to test different education systems in different institutions and environments. It has given me the opportunity to know how to research and study using a variety of methods, and to choose what suits my interests and abilities. Unfortunately, in the Arab world, this opportunity is rarely available except in branch campuses of Western universities or in local universities following Western academic policies. The education system in most Arab countries has long since ceased being updated. One generation follows the next without rethinking or trying to develop the system. For me, there might be no perfect academic system—each one has its pros and cons. But it is not enough for institutions simply to accommodate the preferences of professors; they must create an environment that allows the student to freely explore different research methods and topics away from the professor’s control, yet under his supervision.
Ahlam Mustafa is a Palestinian blogger and Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney in Australia in the field of Arabic language and culture.