Sustainability students experience cultural, corporate contexts from leaders in Dubai

interior group photo of His Excellency, program leaders, and students in Dubai

Students from Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability met with His Excellency Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Minister of Economy and regional business leaders for a brunch as part of their study abroad experience in Dubai this past May.

Amid tables of exotic foods, including a dish called “ouzi” made of lamb, rice and nuts, His Excellency – himself an ASU alum – discussed tourism, governance, economics and other local issues with the visiting students. The young scholars explored sustainable tourism and culture in Dubai as one of four study abroad experiences offered by the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives’ Global Sustainability Studies Program this summer.

The meeting was organized by two ASU Alumni Association members, Joseph Bularzik and Cody Paris, who were also able to attend.

“ASU has a long standing relationship with partners in Dubai,” says Caroline Savalle, program manager of the Global Sustainability Studies Program. “The city is an excellent location to study how rapidly developing countries are taking sustainability into account, especially given Dubai’s reputation for the ‘bigger, better, faster, more’ approach to development.”

Connecting with a global partner

Once a sandy oasis, Dubai has become a competitive member in the global economy and a land of plenty with super highways, skyscrapers, massive malls and man-made island resorts. Recently, the city’s officials became interested in instilling sustainability in Dubai’s practices and lifestyle.

To learn more about what ASU is doing in the field of sustainability and gain firsthand knowledge from the sustainability students from his alma mater, His Excellency expressed sincere interest in meeting with each of the 20 students. His Excellency shared that the UAE is establishing “knowledge enterprises,” much like ASU.

“The students fervently enjoyed engaging in discussions with His Excellency on topics that included tourism, sustainability, the economy and Native American culture,” says Christine Buzinde, a Dubai program leader and associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development.

Dubai as a classroom

David Manuel-Navarrete – a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability and a Dubai program leader – says the trip provided real-world application of the topics the students were discussing in class.

“The students learned how to behave in a different culture and in the presence of high-ranking officials,” he says. “They were able to ask critical questions, and the Dubai business leaders and His Excellency were very open to discussion. The Emiratis we encountered provided a lot of insight and personal experience for the students.”

Matt Cohen, a doctoral student in the school, is studying governance and urban development. He plans to use his experience in Dubai as a case study in his dissertation.

“Dubai provided an opportunity for me to study urban development in a different governance setting that also happens to be one of the most rapidly developing cities in the world,” he says. “Although this was an academic study trip, I often find that the most important lessons are ones of cultural understanding.”

Students engaged in lectures delivered by academics from UAE’s universities. The students also met with industry representatives from Al Hosn Gas Company, the Dubai World Central Aviation City, the Dubai Municipal Government and Chamber of Commerce, and Masdar City.

The meetings and presentations with Dubai business leaders allowed the students to show off what they’ve learned at ASU, which led to some resume requests.

“This speaks to the caliber of students in the program,” says Buzinde. “They were actively engaged in every one of the visits and academic meetings. Our local hosts and academics were very impressed with our students’ level of engagement, intelligence and diplomacy.”

Global challenge needs global education

Stepping inside another culture can elevate a university education to a whole new level. Program leaders say that experiencing different places, people and ways of life is especially important in the field of sustainability.

“Sustainability is a global challenge,” says Savalle. “To remain the leader in sustainability education, research and solution design, School of Sustainability graduates must have first-hand, cross-cultural experience and understanding to effectively implement solutions in today’s interconnected world.”

During the Dubai trip, the students never forgot they were visiting on behalf of ASU.

“On one hand, studying abroad has an impact on the students, while on the other hand, the students are having an impact on the host culture,” says Manuel-Navarrete. “I think the students and faculty of ASU could help the UAE find their pathway to sustainability, but there are also great lessons to be learned in Dubai that can further prepare our students to tackle global sustainability issues.”

The Global Sustainability Studies Program provides financial support to ASU sustainability students through the Walton Family Foundation’s investment in the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. This summer, more than 80 sustainability students are visiting regions such as Dubai, Ecuador, Spain, Morocco, Washington D.C. and London.

Read more about the Dubai trip and the other study abroad experiences on the student-authored blog.