DOHA, Qatar — On a hot October evening, hundreds of families flocked to the sumptuous Ritz Carlton here in this Persian Gulf capital for an unusual college fair, the Education City roadshow.
Qataris, Bangladeshis, Syrians, Indians, Egyptians — in saris, in suits, in dishdashis, in jeans — came to hear what it takes to win admission to one of the five American universities that offer degrees at Education City, a 2,500-acre campus on the outskirts of Doha where oil and gas money pays for everything from adventurous architecture to professors’ salaries.
Education City, the largest enclave of American universities overseas, has fast become the elite of Qatari education, a sort of local Ivy League. But the five American schools have started small, with only about 300 slots among them for next year’s entering classes. So there is a slight buzz of anxiety at the fair, which starts with a nonalcoholic cocktail hour, with fruit juices passed on silver trays as families circulate among the booths.
Cornell’s medical school, which combines pre-med training and professional training over six years, will graduate the first Qatar-trained physicians this spring. Virginia Commonwealth University brought its art and design program to Qatari women 10 years ago and began admitting men this year. Carnegie Mellon offers computer and business programs.
Texas A&M, the largest of the Education City schools, teaches engineering, with petroleum engineering its largest program. Georgetown’s foreign service school is the latest arrival. Soon, Northwestern University’s journalism program will come, too.
When the crowd files into the ballroom to hear about the admission process — first in English, with Arabic translation available through headphones, then later in Arabic — what it hears is much the same as at an information session for a selective American college.
“We want to see students who are passionate and dedicated,” Valerie Jeremijenko, Virginia Commonwealth’s dean of student affairs, tells the crowd. “It’s competitive, but don’t let that discourage you.”
She sounds all the familiar themes: Work hard this year, so you can get great recommendations. Participate in extracurricular activities. Do not obsess about SAT scores, because we look at the whole person.
Education City is so firmly ensconced as the gold standard here that many students apply to several of its schools, knowing that their career will be determined by where they are accepted.
When Dana Hadan was a student at Doha’s leading girls’ science high school, she wanted to be a doctor and applied to Cornell’s medical school. But Cornell rejected her, and her parents did not want her to go to a medical school overseas. So Ms. Hadan enrolled instead in the business program at Carnegie Mellon.
Now, as a third-year student, she is happily learning macroeconomics and marketing. “I was never interested in business, but now I’m passionate about it,” said Ms. Hadan, a lively 20-year-old.
She never considered the locally run Qatar University: “I knew I wanted Education City,” she said.
Admission standards, degree requirements and curriculum — complete, in most cases, with an introductory two years of broad liberal arts — at the Education City schools are the same as at the American home campuses. So is the philosophy of teaching.
“There are lots of programs in different countries that are ‘kind of like,’ ‘in partnership with,’ or ‘inspired by’ American education,” said Charles E. Thorpe, the dean of Carnegie Mellon in Qatar. “But this is American education. And for many of our students, that’s a very big change. Almost all of them went to single-sex secondary schools. As recently as six years ago, the elementary reader in Qatar was the Koran, so students learned beautiful classical Arabic, but they had no experience with questions like ‘What do you think the author meant by that?’ or ‘Do you agree or disagree?’ ”
Education City is in many ways a study in contradictions, an island of American-style open debate in what remains an Islamic monarchy, albeit a liberal one by regional standards. Education City graduates will be a broadly educated elite, who have had extended contact with American professors and American ways of thinking, and, in some cases, spent time at their school’s home campus back in the United States.
Education City represents broad opportunities for women, in a nation where many families do not allow their daughters to travel overseas for higher education or to mix casually with men. Cornell stresses, proudly, that it was Qatar’s first coeducational institution of higher learning.
The female students are very much aware of their new opportunities and the support they have received from Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, the emir’s second wife and a strong advocate of women’s education. She is chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, which runs Education City.
“I don’t want my father’s money or my husband’s money,” said Maryam al-Ibrahim, a 21-year-old second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth. “I want to work for a private company and be myself, and I would like to become someone important here.”