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Internships Open Doors to "Hidden" UAE for Overseas Students

Melanie Swan, The National
August 06, 2013

Many overseas students find it tough to gain valid insight into the UAE's vast culture, history and geography--but an internship has allowed two NYU Abu Dhabi students to do just that. 

Leah Reynolds, 22, and Petrus Layarda, 21, have been working for Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research this summer.

Unlike many placements, which involve little more than making coffee and data inputting, the students have been fully immersed in the foundation's research work.

Ms. Reynolds, from the United States, is about to complete her bachelor's degree in social research and public policy. She said the experience opened her eyes to the UAE beyond the comfort zone of her downtown campus.

"It's been easier to get to know the community in a shorter time," she said. "I've learnt more about the UAE by being part of the foundation and seeing the community outreach efforts.

"Community engagement is so big here that it's been a good chance to talk to locals about the community, the vision of the leaders, how policy fits into their lives."

Rather than take a semester at one of NYU's other international campuses, last term Ms. Reynolds took a course at Zayed University in social and economic trends in the Arabian Gulf.

But this summer has really enabled her to get closer to the local culture and "ask people about their family traditions during Ramadan, for example, attend traditional iftars. I could do this much more by being in RAK. It's changed my view of the UAE, even just seeing the mountains."

Mr. Layarda, a third-year economics student, said the experience was invaluable for his degree and his experience in the country.

He admitted to spending most of his time in Abu Dhabi while attending university, with occasional trips to Dubai.

"Being here has completely expanded my notion of what the UAE is," said Mr. Layarda, who is from Indonesia. "Working here among Emiratis and Arabs as well as expatriates, going to iftars, have all been firsts for me.

"The Emiratis we study among are mostly from Abu Dhabi and a few from Dubai, so they all come from well-off families. It's important to see this isn't the general rule."

He said that until now his perception had been "shallow."

Mr. Layarda has developed many skills that will support his final-year research project.

During his internship he has been assessing research papers for a project being undertaken by the foundation.

He also witnessed research featuring Emirati English teachers who were brought to the foundation to sit a number of economics-based assessments that look at qualities such as people's risk taking and decision making.

"It was really amazing to be part of research like this," he said.

Dr. Natasha Ridge, head of research, said the study was looking at the decisions made by teachers and what their economic drivers were.

"Expatriates choose to take a smaller amount of money immediately, whereas Emiratis would be happy to take a bigger sum in the future.

"What this means for teaching is that if expatriate teachers are prioritising the present, they're only ever going to act in ways that benefit them today, so they won't think about long-term solutions for their students.

"The way we are dealing with expatriate teachers may be undermining student achievement."

Ms. Reynolds hopes more students can get access like this in the future.

"Students without the knowledge of the UAE aren't taught the basics in classes or in orientation or as a student community," Mr. Layarda added. "We don't go out to these places."

Ms. Reynolds is about to begin her own research project for her final year, which will focus on higher education in the UAE.

"This has been a perfect experience," she said. "I'd like to look at the different types of universities, being in such a diverse environment with such diverse students and how this may create different experiences here."

Dr. Ridge said the foundation will be working with more students.

"The university is making an effort to connect but it probably struggled when it first started because it takes time to make these connections. But there is definitely more effort to engage."

Students are provided with housing and a Dh2,000 a month stipend for the internship.

"There still seems to be a lot of confusion in the UAE surrounding internships and what they mean and what they look like for the students," Dr. Ridge said. "Coming from the US, NYU is different because they are familiar with internships, but another foreign university here approached us and asked us what internships should entail."

She said the students added value this summer.

"These are high-calibre students."