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Doha Dispatches: Making History

Northwestern delegation arrives in Doha to kick off week of NU-Q commencement activities

Monday, May 7, 2012 - 5 p.m.

DOHA, Qatar – Some 153 years after Northwestern’s first class received their diplomas in Evanston, the 36 students from 17 countries who comprise Northwestern University in Qatar’s first graduating class are preparing this week for NU-Q’s inaugural commencement on Wednesday.

A delegation of more than 50 University officials and faculty -- including President Morton Schapiro, President Emeritus Henry S. Bienen, Provost Daniel Linzer, Board of Trustees Chairman William Osborn, fellow trustees and guests -- traveled here this weekend to celebrate with the NU-Q Class of 2012.

Chicago was overcast, drizzly and grey, with temperatures in the mid 50s, when the groups departed Saturday afternoon. Twenty-four hours and 7,000 miles later, we landed in Doha Sunday night, where the high temperatures are averaging about 110 degrees right now.

Glowing skyscrapers awash in colored lighting by night, sidra trees and date palms, desert sands and the call of the muezzins from local mosques greeted us. In Doha’s Education City, NU-Q students, faculty and staff have been preparing the biggest celebration since Northwestern began classes in 2008.

At a reception for the visiting University delegation, NU-Q Dean Everette Dennis praised the graduating seniors Sunday night as brave pioneers who took a risk when they came -- starting their time at NU-Q when, as he put it, there were no courses, no faculty, no administrators and no building.

Former President Bienen, who committed Northwestern to open a Doha campus years ago and returned to see the first cohort graduate, said he wanted “the University to have a global footprint,” but also “to make the world a better place.”

On Monday, President Schapiro and other members of the visiting delegation toured the Doha campus, got an introduction to the studios and editing suites NU-Q makes available to students and heard strong presentations from the graduating seniors on their work and research.  

Some of the media technology used here is more sophisticated than what many television news operations have back in the States. That is another mark of distinction in Northwestern’s long journey.

Back in 1859, there were only four students awarded bachelor’s degrees in Evanston for the first commencement. In 1878, the School of Communication was officially founded as a certificate program in elocution, and it would be another 60 years before Northwestern established its fledgling Medill School of Journalism in 1921.

Now, Northwestern has three campuses, and the newest one will be awarding Bachelor of Science degrees in journalism and communication to an inaugural class of pioneering students who came to NU-Q from across the globe. This is a remarkable group of talented, multilingual, award-winning students who have so many firsts under their belts that it’s hard to list them all.

Doha-born senior Omer Mohammad, 21, a Canadian and Pakistani citizen and communication major, described the path he and his classmates traveled in their four-year transformation into Wildcats and soon-to-be college graduates.

“You’re the pioneers. You’re the first. You’re blazing the trail for years to come for those who come after you,” observed Mohammad, who wants to pursue film and documentary work in Qatar after graduation. “When we were freshmen, we were kind of overwhelmed by all that, at first.

“Here we were at NU-Q. We looked around, and ‘Oh, my God,’ we were thinking -- that there were no courses, there were no buildings, there was barely a university here,” he recalled. “That attitude about us being pioneers, well it’s true for most of us. We’ve always taken the first step in so many things.”

True, but also fitting, historically. Northwestern University got its start in much the same way back in 1850, when the idea for a university was conceived by nine serious, devout individuals who met in a law office above a hardware store in Chicago. They wanted to champion “sanctified” learning and create a university in the Northwest Territory under the auspices of the Methodist Church.

They wrote the University’s charter that would be enacted by the Illinois Legislature in January 1851, set about appointing a president and other officials, and bought 379 acres of farmland in 1853 for $25,000 amid the oak groves along Lake Michigan in an area that would become Evanston. Northwestern University put up its first building and held its first classes in the fall of 1855, with eight students and two professors present, and the new university celebrated its inaugural convocation.

Similarly, Northwestern came to the shores of the Arabian Gulf to join a pioneering venture by several American universities in Education City and bring their specialties and a U.S. model of higher education to Qatar. With the encouragement, leadership and support of the Qatar Foundation, President Bienen launched the University into a new frontier of global education.

For Presidents Bienen and Schapiro, many other guests from Evanston and personnel from the Doha campus, this celebration is special because it marks the culmination of years of determined, innovative and tireless work to create a campus, a curriculum and a top-notch student experience in Qatar. On Wednesday night, the celebration of NU-Q’s first commencement brings to fruition years of planning, investment and hard work by deans, faculty, staff and students.

It will also be a celebration of the remarkable achievements of this diverse, multicultural group of seniors who succeeded in so many ways opening paths for future success by the generations that follow. Along with their Purple Pride, this week’s crop of graduates will wear traditional garb from around the world, including the Qatari thobes and abayas common among locals here.

Their work has pushed the boundaries of a traditionally conservative society, where Qataris are getting more used to seeing young reporters -- men and women -- interviewing people and taking pictures and video all over Doha.

“We get to do a lot of things, and we learn a large skill set,” Sara al Saadi said.

Al Saadi, 21, a senior from Qatar in the Class of 2012: “I think one of the crucial things that we learned is how to tell stories and to tailor messages very carefully, how to create an image for a global or regional audience.

“That is one of the most important things we learned: How to showcase ourselves and the work we are doing. For example, we worked on a lot of documentaries, so you learn how to shape a message. You tell stories that raise difficult issues sometimes, and you find a way to send a message that is more effective, rather than just saying critical things about the culture.”

That tension between tradition and modernity is common in the region, but Qatar has opened the door to change. For many in the Northwestern delegation traveling to Doha, it’s a chance to see that progress even as they celebrate the graduates. For some, it’s also their first trip to the region and one of the experiences of a lifetime.

“We’re just coming to encourage them, support them and cheer them on,” said Douglas Troutman, associate dean of administration and IT at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “It’s also exciting to see Doha and all the architectural wonders. It’s going to be amazing.”

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