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Week of 5.16.08

Interview: A Qatari Student

Mais Taha with fellow students at Texas A&M in Qatar.
Mais Taha (bottom row center) with fellow students at Texas A&M in Qatar.
Mais Taha is a junior at Texas A&M in Qatar majoring in petroleum engineering. This is an edited transcript of NOW's conversation with Taha about her experiences studying at an American University.

NOW: Why did you decide to go to an American university, rather than the University of Qatar, for example?

Mais Taha (MT): As a child I went to English schools. I didn't go to public schools, or Arabic schools. My parents always wanted me to go in that direction, because it's the new thing, it's the trend that's going with the time we're living in. In my last year of high school I thought that I had the potential to go to a really good university, a university that is rated around the world, where I could get a world-class degree. So I thought of leaving the country, but I knew it would be very hard for me to leave.

"With Education City, I could still achieve the same goals, without having to leave the country."
NOW: Why would it be difficult for you to leave?

MT: Because I would feel homesick. I'm used to living with the family, which makes life much easier. With Education City, I could still achieve the same goals, without having to leave the country.

NOW: Is it an unusual decision for a Qatari family to send their daughter to an American school here?

MT: It's not unusual, it happens, but it's hard. It's not an easy decision. In Qatar, we're brought up in a society where girls have to be protected more than guys. Parents tend to sometimes be overprotective of the girls. They're scared that if they let her go something will happen to her.

NOW: How have people reacted to your decision to attend an American university?

MT: They love it. They encourage me to stay on, to do my best and prove that, as a female, I am able to stay there and be one of the best.

NOW: Are there a lot of other women in your class?

MT: There are ten girls in my class out of a total of 28.

"We want to show the guys that we can do it better than they can."
NOW: Are there female engineers in Qatar?

MT: Some girls have graduated with engineering degrees. The industry is changing. Companies now are looking more for females, because they want diversity and they want to give everyone a chance. I don't know if I'm exaggerating but girls are doing better than guys.

NOW: Typically in Qatar, classes are not co-ed. Is studying alongside male students a change for you?

MT: No. I lived in Germany for a few years and my school there was mixed.

NOW: How about your classmates, was it a change for them?

MT: Most of the girls had not been in mixed schools before so in the beginning it was kind of hard for them to cope. It was their first experience dealing with men outside of the family. If you're not comfortable dealing with guys, it's hard for you to work with them in a group project, to talk together, to have long meetings, or to stay late at the university to discuss a project. If you're not used to dealing with the other gender, it's very hard for you to understand how they think.

NOW: Have things gotten easier?

MT: I think every girl in my class is now comfortable dealing with guys. We all realized that working alongside the guys gives us more energy. It gives us more potential to work, because we want to compete. We want to show the guys that we can do it better than they can. It's a good incentive for us to work.

NOW: How have your male classmates coped with co-education?

MT: Let me give you an example from my own experience. In the beginning of my first year, our professor divided us into groups of two, with a girl and a guy in each group, to do an engineering project. For the first two weeks the guy in my group complained to the professor. He said: "There's a huge problem, I don't want to work with a girl." But then the professor told him, "Okay, it's either, you get an F, or you work with her."

I sent this guy an e-mail and told him: "This can't work for me. We have to work together. I don't care if you have problems with girls. You'll have to get over it." He did, and now this guy is a good friend of mine. You see how these universities contribute to your personality. They change you.

NOW: Do you think going to an American University will help you find a better job?

MT: Of course. As a Texas A&M graduate, I think that when I apply to a company my application is put forward because I'm getting a world-class engineering degree. This summer I'm doing my internship with Shell. And from what I saw they really understand how good my degree is. It's a great honor to have such a university in this country.

NOW: Do you think other Qataris feel as positively as you do about having American universities in your country?

MT: People are starting to feel more positively because the first class has graduated already. From what I can see all of the graduates got really good jobs. I think that people are feeling better about it because they see how these graduates are going to make a difference in the country, how they're going to make better decisions, and help advance Qatar.

NOW: Some American students came over to visit Qatar from Texas A&M in the United States. How was that?

"Not every person who wears a headscarf is a terrorist. Not every person who has a beard is a terrorist."
MT: We have an exchange trip, where ten people from the main campus come over here for about a week. We take them out and introduce them to our culture. So far, I've made 20 American friends from Texas. It's so much fun to learn about them, to find out how they live, and to see the similarities between us. We listen to the same music. I didn't expect that they would be so similar to us. We kind of think in the same way.

NOW: What did they think of Qatar?

MT: They expected us to be riding camels or something. Then they come here and see the Ferraris and Porsches on the streets, and they're like, "Wow, you guys drive these cars?" Some of them told us "We never knew that girls who wear hijab are this nice." When they come to our country and talk to us, and get to know us, they see that we're nice people. Not every person who wears a headscarf is a terrorist. Not every person who has a beard is a terrorist. Being a Muslim doesn't mean you're a terrorist.