Heba Ahmed was so excited that she could barely sit during her graduation ceremony on Dec. 13 at Arizona State University.
Ahmed, who earned a master’s degree in software engineering, said she wanted to stand and record everything going on around her.
“It was the best experience ever,” she said. “I never imagined I would be able to do it, and I’m so happy.”
Ahmed, who traveled from Saudi Arabia, was the first ASU Online student in the Open Learning Scholars Program to attend graduation in person. The Open Learning Scholars Program, which began in 2018 through a partnership with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, has now created more than 140 ASU Online graduates who live in the Middle East and northern Africa region.
Overall, 550 Open Learning Scholars have received scholarships to pursue master’s degrees through ASU Online, and the final group of scholars will begin their studies from among 39 degree options this spring, including education, engineering, sustainability and biomimicry, according to Lisa Manning, project manager at EdPlus, the ASU unit that houses ASU Online.
“All of the degrees were hand-picked by the foundation because they identified gaps in student access to certain skills and careers, and ASU can fill this gap,” Manning said.
“It was a really beneficial element of the design. We weren’t saying, ‘Here’s what you need.’ We said, ‘Here’s what we offer,’ and they could pick what was relevant to the region and the students and their vision.”
The goal of the program is to turn the investment in the student into an investment in the region. Emirati businessman and philanthropist Abdulla Al Ghurair, the founder of Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE), pledged one-third of his wealth to the foundation and set a target of helping 50,000 Emirati learners become ready for higher education and work, and providing 150,000 Arab youth with a path to sustainable and elevated livelihoods through high-quality educational solutions by 2025. The foundation is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“These scholars have been targeted as students who historically would not have been able to complete their next-level degree without support,” Manning said.
“These are 550 individuals who are getting access to change their lives and impact their communities and regions.”
Ahmed said she didn’t get the scholarship the first time she applied.
“I applied again, and when I got to the interview, they (asked) me, ‘What would you do if you got rejected?’ and I told them, 'I will apply again and again until you accept me,'” said Ahmed, who works in Saudi Arabia as a web developer.
“Being an online student at one of the best universities in the U.S. — what else is there in the world?”
Some of the students in the Middle East and northern African region have faced challenges, according to Ruth Tisdale, a program manager at EdPlus.
“They have seen everything from civil unrest to government protests to internet shortages to electricity shortages,” she said.
Manning said that issues that affect whole countries affect the students even more dramatically.
“In Lebanon, where there is electricity rationing, students are using gas-powered generators to charge their laptops enough to access their lectures,” she said.
“The professors are working closely with them to send downloadable lectures they can watch without Wi-Fi, if needed.”
The Open Learning Scholars have become fully engaged with ASU, starting two student clubs: Egyptian Sun Devils and Sun Devils Global Friends.
And when the students wanted more opportunities to practice English and meet their peers, ASU Online created the Program for Language and Culture Exchange, which matches students from different countries for a semester of conversation.
Ahmed participated in the Delta Sigma online sorority and the AGFE group in between her studies.
“My advice would be, don’t think because it’s online it’ll be easy. It’s not,” she said. “It’s a long road, but at the end, you’ll be proud of yourself.”
Serving young learners
Another facet of ASU’s partnership with AGFE is the Al Ghurair Young Thinkers Program, a college and career readiness platform for Emirati and Arab people ages 15 to 30.
“There’s a void in terms of career guidance and counseling in high schools and universities in the region, so this resource fills in those gaps,” said Tiffany Lehn, assistant director of EdPlus.
“It helps them make career decisions and make decisions on which degree program they want to study and what university to go to.”
Nearly 50,000 young people from 21 countries have registered to use the free platform, which offers 35 courses in both English and Arabic, in topics such as public speaking, digital literacy, how to write a resume, how to study effectively and time management. More than half of the users are female.
From 4 p.m. to midnight every weekday, learners can chat with ASU-trained, bilingual success advisers, who have lived in the Middle East.
They also can explore options through ASU’s me3 interactive online tool that matches their interests to a career path.
“We adapted the ASU version and regionalized it with images of Emirati and Arabs from different countries, with specific careers that are relevant and important to the region,” Lehn said.
The foundation wants Arab youth to gain professional skills to be competitive in a global economy, and also to be trained in STEM fields, according to Bethany Weigele, chief innovation officer at EdPlus.
“They want to support greater participation of Emirati youth in the private sectors,” Weigele said.
“There’s been a heavy reliance on government employment, and they want to encourage youth to work in the private sector.”
In early December, the Young Thinkers Program won the gold medal for the best online program in the QS Reimagine Education competition, among 1,100 entries.
“We’re serving those learners who really need help in college and career readiness, which is clearly aligned with our mission at ASU,” Weigele said.
“We provide that support that alleviates barriers.”
Top photo: Heba Ahmed traveled from Saudi Arabia for her graduation ceremony on Dec. 13 at Arizona State University. Ahmed, who earned a master’s degree in software engineering, won a scholarship through the Open Learning Scholars Program. Photo by Brandon Sullivan
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