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Doha's Class of 2012 Makes History

First graduating seniors from Qatar campus join in Evanston commencement

EVANSTON, Ill. --- They took a risk on a start-up campus and chose to study journalism and communication at Northwestern University in order to tell stories for a living. But these newly minted storytellers also became part of the story of a lifetime.

The first class of proud and purple graduates from Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) focused much of their undergraduate storytelling on covering news, making documentaries and writing plays about the Arab awakening erupting and spreading like wildfire across the Middle East.

No one predicted the Arab Spring uprisings, but it was an extraordinary learning opportunity for the NU-Q Class of 2012 and those who come after them. This first class of pioneers has succeeded in so many ways beyond their wildest dreams.

So on Friday (June 15), when President Morton Schapiro conferred bachelor of science degrees on them in journalism and communication, they cheered, clapped and cried as they made history and graduated with their Evanston peers in the Class of 2012 It was a singular achievement for them, their families and friends, and for the University as a whole.

Their journey marks the first successful chapter in a new venture, a third campus and the 12th school at the University, and already NU-Q is starting to leave its mark on the students, faculty and staff of the wider University.

“You do get overwhelmed and excited. It’s amazing to be here,” said Benazir al-Munir Karim, 21, a journalism major from Tanzania and NU-Q’s first valedictorian. She did residencies with AOL and the Huffington Post and was on hand for commencement in Evanston.

“You realize you really do all belong together,” she added emotionally about the larger Class of 2012 as she visited the Rock for photos this week. She expressed the feelings of many NU-Q students who came to Evanston and felt the bonding experience of being here with their Wildcat peers.

“Even though you’re far apart on the map, you realize when you talk that you’re all connected. We all find that we’re part of the same family and shared experience,” she added. “Even though we are a small and faraway campus, we all find ways to come together.” 

Nearly two dozen students from the inaugural NU-Q senior class of 36 journeyed from Doha to Evanston for a week of events, honors, receptions and celebrations marking the first NU-Q class to graduate from Northwestern. The seniors are from 17 nations on six continents and many of them have grown up in multiple countries around the world.

But their journey and their success marks a coming of age for the Qatar campus as one of the three main campuses of the University, as President Morton Schapiro told the NU-Q commencement audience in May when he led a delegation of 50 dignitaries to Doha for an early celebration of the seniors and their degrees.

Those degrees became final Friday when they were conferred on the students of NU-Q and other graduates at Northwestern University’s 154th commencement celebration:

“We are honored today to have with us the first graduating class of Northwestern University in Qatar,” the president said in welcoming remarks during a sweltering commencement ceremony at Ryan Field. “They are accompanied by their dean, Ev Dennis. These pioneering students from across the globe have achieved remarkable successes over the past four years, paving paths for future generations of students to follow.”

Later in the ceremony, after conferring degrees on the NU-Q students, he declared: “I congratulate you and wish you well, as you rise to the challenge of making meaningful contributions in the world of global media.” 

Dean Everette Dennis described Northwestern University in Qatar as a “jewel” that has already created value added for students in the region and made its mark on the University as a whole. “This is a high-risk and a high-reward enterprise,” he said in an interview, “and lots of resources have been put into this basket.

“My feeling is at a number of levels faculty have come and gone between Doha and Evanston, and you cannot underestimate the profound effect that experience has had on their understanding of the region, what they have learned and how it has reenergized their own work,” Dennis said.

And what lies ahead for the NU-Q graduates is just as exciting. Many already have jobs lined up, and others are starting their own companies.

Benazir Karim, chosen as valedictorian because she had the highest GPA in her 2012 NU-Q class, will go to work for euronews in Lyons, France, as a bilingual journalist and intern. She hopes to work in the television industry in Qatar as well and, one day, to go to law school and pursue a practice in media law.

Florent D’Souza, 22, who was born in Doha of Indian descent and majored in communication at NU-Q, started working at his new job part-time in January as head of online and social media for the Doha Debates, a Qatar Foundation sponsored program televised by BBC World News that examines often controversial social, political and cultural issues.

The Qatar Foundation has been the benefactor for Education City, where NU-Q joined five other American universities in 2008 and programs from other foreign schools.

“One of the things Ev Dennis always says about NU-Q is they are preparing us for the jobs of the future,” D’Souza said, noting that it wasn’t always clear to him how that would work. But now, he observed, he believes NU-Q students are going into the media market with skills “that are five times ahead of the media scene in the Middle East.”

“It’s been a really amazing journey,” he said. “I came to NU-Q not knowing what Northwestern University would be like. We all wondered whether NU-Q would provide the same quality as Northwestern in Evanston. Then I came and took classes here (Evanston), and some of the classes at NU-Q were actually even harder.”

“It truly has been the most game-changing four years of my life. My life has really changed during my time at NU-Q. It taught me a lot more about business. It taught me a lot more about people. I cannot imagine learning all that anywhere else,” D’Souza said.

Rana Khaled, 21, a journalism major and Palestinian who was born in Abu Dhabi, has lived in Qatar most of her life and plans to stay there in the capital, Doha, to start a production company now with three senior classmates from NU-Q.

 Joining Khaled in the creation of the company, named “Torath” [heritage], are two other journalism graduates -- Shannon Farhoud, 22, who was born in Canada and grew up in Kuwait, and Ashlene Ramadan, 21, a Lebanese-American who grew up in Qatar – and a communication graduate, Melanie Fridgant, 21, of Paris, France.

The four hope to collaborate on stories about Arab culture in the Mideast region told by people in the region who know the issues from a local point of view.

“We want to break a lot of the cultural stereotypes people have about Mideast culture, and we’re hoping to educate people,” said Khaled.

“We want to give the right message in our documentaries,” said Fridgant.

On Friday, before they filed into Ryan Field for Commencement, the NU-Q students gathered at a meeting with the Northwestern Alumni Association leaders and trustees to receive the charter for NU-Q’s first alumni chapter.

The Qatar chapter will join close to 70 other alumni chapters around the nation and the world. Afterwards, the students were already starting to think about their first reunion next year

Patricia Telles-Irvin, Northwestern vice president for student affairs, remarked this week that she was impressed how the NU-Q students had become increasingly part of the wider University.

“I’ve been talking to the students from NU-Q, and they were so honored to be here -- and they felt not just part of NU-Q, but part of the entire University,” she observed. “I was so gratified to hear that because it means they are being integrated into the whole University.

“The more the NU-Q students come here, the more influence they will have on the students and on life on the Evanston campus.”

Dean Dennis agreed. “We are small and nimble. We can’t do the kind of things that a big institution can do,” he said. “I think it’s presumptuous for a little school to say it is going to have a big impact on a large university, but a lot has been done here.

“We do a lot of things that build knowledge. When we bring people in from Evanston, faculty and students do projects, and when we bring others into Education City for conferences, people come together to do major things and we can work on generating big ideas.”

He cited the work of visiting faculty and the “good offices” conference hosted by NU-Q in Doha in December 2011, where representatives of the Libya’s government and media came and hammered out principles for a media future that should be more focused on freedom of expression.

“We engage big topics in the world, and, foremost, scholarship,” he said. “I hope we would be looked upon as a place that generated ideas and that added value to the larger University, the region and the world.

“They couldn’t have known that the Arab Spring would happen, but those very powerful circumstances had a profound impact on the region and our students, and helped perfect their education.

“It’s so exciting for these students to come out of this program. People are saying this is what a university should be and should do. They’re talking about freedom of expression and putting it into practice in the Mideast.”