Opportunities for students to improve their higher education and career prospects can be slim in the Arab world, where many schools emphasize classwork and exam results and fail to furnish young people with the life skills needed to navigate their future. As a result, some students find they know little about universities or the job market as they approach the next step.
The Covid-19 crisis has compounded the problem, with students cut off from teachers and unable to visit campuses or meet university advisors. But digital uptake across the region has accelerated during the pandemic, and new opportunities have emerged online.
The Al Ghurair Young Thinkers Program, an online portal that offers courses and advice to help young Emirati and Arab students prepare for university and future work, is one of them.
“The digital literacy of youth in the region was something we had (initially) overestimated, says Nesma Farahat, an education program manager at the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which created the platform. “Covid has encouraged more young people to come online and become digitally savvy,” she says.
The foundation, based in Dubai, offers scholarships and skills training to underserved students across the Arab region. Farahat runs its Young Thinkers Program.
Advice That Fits Arab Students’ Needs
“We wanted to do something that was specifically for the youth of the U.A.E. … [to] fill some major gaps when young people were transitioning from high school to university and from university to the workplace,” Farahat says.
Working alongside a team at Arizona State University, one of the leading online education providers in the United States, the foundation developed a digital platform with components designed to meet the challenges faced by Arab students searching for advice.
Globally, there’s a big gap between skills development and acquisition, Farahat says, highlighting in particular the discrepancy between the changing world of work and the teaching of 21st century skills for success among Arab youth. “We wanted to help young people make better decisions,” she says.
Within 48 hours of launching the platform in October 2018, demand had already exceeded capacity on some of its services.
“We have realized there is such a thirst and hunger for this kind of information,” Farahat says, “and young people are not finding it—or if they are, it’s not in Arabic or it’s not as high quality as it could be.”
There are now 24,000 students signed up to the free platform, which has expanded to serve youth across the Arab world.
The portal offers courses on topics like career planning, communication, online literacy, time management, and university preparedness. Particularly popular is an advisor matching option, which pairs students with an education expert in the United States to offer advice on everything from choosing a major to making the most of university life.
Online Access Fills a Gap
Taimaa Jokhadar, a psychology student from Homs, in Syria, who is studying at a university in northern Lebanon, says the online aspect of the platform has filled a gap. “There are not a lot of things like this available online, and it’s made access easy during the coronavirus,” the 22-year-old says.
At first, Sulaiman Faraj, a 19-year-old who lives in the emirate of Ajman, was daunted by the prospect of university and the decisions it entailed. “In 12th grade I didn’t know what I wanted to do or which university to go to, and I wasn’t sure about my major at all. … I didn’t even know what university is or how the system works,” he says.
Stumbling across the Young Thinkers Program while scouring the web for advice, he took the portal’s quiz, which matches users’ interests with careers and credentials. Most of the results he got were engineering subjects. “It felt like me, this is what I was looking for,” Faraj says. He then took the course in university preparedness, learning for the first time that college students are assessed on a grade-point average system.
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“I learned what university provides me and how I can make the most out of it, how to study effectively, set goals and manage my time,” he says, adding that the additional knowledge made him feel “more confident and comfortable” about the journey ahead.
Now a second-year chemical engineering student at Khalifa University, in Abu Dhabi, Faraj believes the program not only helped him map his academic path but provided invaluable personal guidance too. “When you start school, you know your whole year in a few days, but at university there are different people in each class, so I was afraid.”
He shared his concerns with his Young Thinkers Program advisor and gleaned tips on meeting people and making friends. “Before, I was shy,” he says, “but university changes your personality.”
Services Tailored to Changing Needs
The platform is constantly upgraded to suit the particular needs of students in the different countries it serves. Along the way, a WhatsApp registration service has been added because fewer Arab youth now use email, and more video learning has been woven into courses after young people said it was their preferred way to learn.
Preferences vary from country to country. In Jordan, users have shown most interest in courses on public speaking, emotional intelligence, strategic educational and career planning, and time management.
Saba Satari, a 17-year-old high school student in Jordan, did the time-management course, which has already proved useful in preparing for her final exams. She’s planning to take the university-preparedness course next because “schools here don’t really prepare you for university,” she says. To plug the gap, she has been volunteering in her local community, trying to gain life skills her school education lacks.
But with access to the Young Thinkers Program, Satari, who dreams of being a journalist covering women’s rights, is excited to complete more workshops after finishing her exams. “The platform includes a lot of useful information,” she says. “This will help me so much in university.” she says.
Zayed University, in the U.A.E., sent information about the Young Thinkers Program to all its students. For Ahmed Al Hamadi, 19, who is in his first year of studying international affairs there, it was the appeal of trying new things that made him click on the link. He has since taken the time-management course and almost completed another on effective learning strategies.
“It’s given me more confidence,” Al Hamadi says. Before, he was hesitant to pursue his dreams of pursuing a master’s degree and a Ph.D., but now those goals feel increasingly within reach. “I have big academic ambitions,” he says. “I thought I was aiming for too much, but now I know it’s not too much. I can learn.”