Education has been a top priority for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since its formation. The late founding father of the UAE, H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, viewed education as the cornerstone to modernization. He has been quoted as saying “a country’s greatest investment lies in building generations of educated and knowledgeable youth.”
The prioritization of education has been instrumental in fostering tolerance and coexistence in the country. In 2019, the UAE celebrated the Year of Tolerance, which aimed to inspire and promote religious and cultural tolerance through various policies and activities. One of the highlights of these initiatives included a visit by Pope Francis, marking the first time a sitting pontiff visited the Arabian Peninsula and the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity by His Holiness and Dr. Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, which called for fraternity between people of different faiths.
The focus on education has led to a strong interest in innovation and accomplishing firsts for the country. The UAE watched, in 2019, as its first astronaut, Major Hazza Al Mansouri, traveled to space, a widely celebrated achievement in the country and a symbol of its dedication to innovation. This achievement signified to the youth in this relatively young nation that nothing is impossible. In 2020, the UAE will accomplish another first as it plans to host Expo 2020. This will be the first time this event is held in the MENA region.* The Expo’s theme is “Connecting Mind, Creating the Future,” with the three sub-themes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. The expo is based on the belief that sharing innovative ideas and building partnerships will inspire the way we shape our future.
These milestones offer valuable lessons to youth, including the possibility of achieving goals through hard work and determination. They can also motivate youth to commit to excelling in their studies and striving towards their goals, and they align with educational priorities in the UAE.
Concurrent with a focus on education comes a commitment to empowering youth and preparing them to be leaders in their fields. The UAE’s education strategy focuses on moving from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based one. It prioritizes ensuring that youth are well-equipped to face the post-oil era by strengthening the education system, encouraging innovation, and supporting research and innovation in various fields. The Ministry of Education’s strategic education plan for 2017-2021 is aimed at increasing secondary school graduation rate to 98 percent (from 96.7 in 2016). Similarly, the National Higher Education Strategy 2030 aims to increase research output and develop programs that are aimed at catering for labor market demands. It is worth noting as well that the UAE also follows an internationalization strategy and has become one of the leading transnational education hubs in the world.
Across the US and the MENA region, the Stevens Initiative is working to raise awareness of and foster interest in virtual exchange and its impact. In the UAE, virtual exchange is possibly an invaluable tool for meeting goals of the education strategy. To engage with important stakeholders, the Initiative is meeting with various entities, attending relevant conferences, and providing virtual exchange capacity-building opportunities for schools and institutions in the UAE. There are several pathways to engage with the Stevens Initiative and virtual exchange, including opportunities to join existing Initiative-funded virtual exchange programs that connect youth in the UAE with youth in the US. Another opportunity is the “Design with a Partner” pathway, which allows a school or institution in the UAE to directly partner with a school or institution in the US to develop a virtual exchange program. Regardless of pathway, these virtual exchange experiences complement the learning experiences of young people in the UAE by meeting larger learning goals and developing their career readiness and cross-cultural communications skills.
Through these efforts, the Initiative is proud to announce its first UAE-US partnership between the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Scholars Program (SMSP), established at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), and the University Leadership Honors Course at New York University. This virtual exchange aims to enhance the cross-cultural experience of participants and give them an opportunity to discuss topics related to the course with their international counterparts.
SMSP offers a select cohort of talented university students from among the top students at the three national UAE universities: the Higher Colleges of Technology, the United Arab Emirates University, and Zayed University. Through virtual exchange, SMSP students will work with NYU students in the US in a leadership development program entitled “What Makes a Great Leader.”
The UAE is successfully providing youth with a positive outlook for the future by inspiring them with examples from within their own society and beyond. These efforts have played a role in shaping young people’s worldviews and has been a driving force behind their determination to follow their dreams. Virtual exchange is vital way to support these efforts, providing opportunities for important skills needed to succeed in today’s world. Enhancing the learning experiences of youth in the UAE through a strong education system and by offering key global learning opportunities through virtual exchange will prepare young people to be active global citizens and professionals. Providing youth with the notion of achievable dreams encourages them to work harder towards their objectives by focusing on their studies knowing full well that they could, one day, achieve a first for their country.
* As per a statement released on March 31, 2020, “Expo 2020 organizers and steering committee participants explore postponement of the event by one year in view of the Covid-19 impact worldwide.” A decision on the postponement of the event had not been announced at the time of publishing.