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Trip to Qatar fuels passion for international news

“We all see you. You are not alone.”

These words were not excerpted from Orwell’s "1984." Rather, they were posted as a warning against littering on the streets of Qatar -- a country with the highest GDP per capita in the world according to the International Monetary Fund.

This spring break, I traveled with 16 fellow students and two staff members from Medill and Northwestern's School of Communication to Doha, Qatar. Immediately upon arrival the warm and brilliant NU-Q students who would serve as our “shadow buddies” for the week greeted us with a "Wildcat Roar." NU-Q’s 150 journalism and communication students come from countries around the world, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and dozens of others. Initially, I barely knew what to expect. Could I, a Jewish-American girl discuss sensitive issues with the Palestinian students? Would we interact closely with Arab men and women clothed head-to-toe in traditional garb or only spend time amongst the expatriate community? What were the differences between studying at Northwestern University in Evanston versus Northwestern in Doha?

As we entered our living accommodations for the week at 44 West Bay, bellies full of gourmet hamburgers and chocolate cake from a welcome dinner at the W Hotel, my jaw fell to the floor. Our fully furnished four-bedroom apartment suite with suede couches and a kitchen twice the size of my Evanston dorm room boasted a balcony view. The scene looked surreal as bright blue lights glowed amidst newly built densely packed and exotically shaped skyscrapers.

The following morning, we toured Education City. An initiative of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development, some of America’s leading universities, such as Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and Texas A&M, host satellite schools there. I wondered how all these world-renowned universities ended up in this tiny Arab country. It turns out the Qatar Foundation funded the project to ensure the future development and sustainability of the Gulf Region.

The campus facilities glitz with luxury and state-of-the art technology. The dorm rooms sport touchscreens outside the doors equipped with USB ports, so that students can leave each other assignments and personal messages. The NU-Q studio has DSLRs, lenses, microphones, Red Cameras and anything an aspiring student filmmaker could ask for, available for student use at no charge.  One NU-Q student remarked, “They want us to only be limited by our imagination.”

I couldn’t help but compare the NU-Qatar campus to that of NU in Evanston. I found the environment at NU-Q both refreshing and conducive to learning with massive sunlit courtyards to study in and courses on topics relevant to the region, such as “Britain in the Middle East,” available.  With only 150 students, the community is tight-knit and highly collaborative. The student advisers seem to act more like parents than administrators. Some classes taught by world-renowned professors comprise of as few as four students.

In Evanston, we sit dozens of rows away from professors in massive lecture halls. The Evanston campus buildings are old and traditional, whereas NU Q’s are literally visions of the future. However, in my head I grappled with which learning environment I’d prefer. On one hand, the resources NU-Q students have at their disposal provide unsurpassed learning opportunities. Ultimately, I cherish the ability to attend school with 8,000 students deriving from diverse backgrounds, each emblazoned with unique aspirations and values.

A country where gas is cheaper than bottled water, Qatar’s wealth is generated primarily by its oil reserves; 50% of the wealth is kept within the royal family, while the other 50% is distributed among Qatari citizens. I along with my fellow Evanston students were shocked to hear that local students can go to college for free, and are even paid a stipend for doing well in school.

I later found that Qatar isn’t all glitter and gold. When we accompanied NU-Q students to their 301 journalism class in Musherib, a male dominated migrant worker community, we found run-down store-fronts neighboring massive Qatari construction projects that would soon push these immigrants to the outskirts of town just in time for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, awakening me to the disparity between the surface glitz and underlying societal issues in Qatar. In fact, walking back to our hotel at 3 a.m. from an evening out with the NU-Q students, I noticed construction workers still laboring away at new skyscrapers.

Several of my own stereotyped impressions about the Middle East were altered by this trip. For one, I felt safer walking the streets of Qatar than Chicago.  For another, though NU-Q’s own student body president, like all Qatari women, covered herself from head to toe in the traditional black abaya, she was filled with more self-confidence than most of the women I have met in the U.S.  And a visit to Al Jazeera on the last day reinforced my desire to work in the international broadcast journalism field, particularly after seeing a live newscast from the studio, buzzing with journalists reporting on current world issues. Al Jazeera has suffered controversial disputes from its reports on the Middle East, in arenas such as the Iraq war and war in Afghanistan. In my journalistic career, I hope to follow a similar mission and path as Al Jazeera, changing minds and attitudes while delving deep into provocative matters of the world.

While some of my favorite parts of the trip involved specific activities -- like dune bashing in the Inland Sea, drinking the deliciously spiced Karak tea or socializing on a Dhow boat with the NU-Q students -- as I chatted with them on our last night about our personal experiences, insecurities and aspirations, underneath the desert stars and by the warmth of a bonfire, I recognized that what I will value the most from this experience are the human connections that grew from my time with the local students.

I wonder what the future of Qatar will hold. A country younger than I am that sees massive infrastructure changes everyday cannot possibly hold on to its traditions forever. What will become of the migrant workers when the World Cup sees an influx of foreigners? Will the newly educated generation of Qatari students still dress in traditional Arab garb and follow cultural protocol, or will they unleash a modern revolution? Maybe one day, after graduating from Medill, I’ll report on these very topics.