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Natasha Ridge | Teachers College | Columbia University | Al Qasimi Foundation | Ras Al Khaimah

It Takes a Foundation

Teachers College, Columbia University
February 13, 2013

As a white Australian woman tackling community development in the United Arab Emirates, Natasha Ridge draws on her deep understanding of the local culture. A decade ago, when Natasha Ridge (Ed.D. ’09) accepted a position starting up an English department in a private secondary school in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), a non-oil-producing member of the United Arab Emirates, she had no notion that she was making a career-defining move. Ridge, who is Australian, simply wanted to help other people and experience another culture in the bargain.

Before long, however, she noticed a gender difference among her students that cut against the grain of received wisdom about education in the region. “The girls were outperforming the boys,” Ridge recalls. Looking beyond her school, she saw that girls had higher enrollment rates than boys in secondary school and higher education. Girls also performed better than boys in every subject and were far less likely to fail and drop out. The pattern was evident across RAK and the Emirates as a whole. And it was even more acute when only native Emirati students were considered, as opposed to the entire population, with its large percentage of immigrants and expatriates.

Fast forward seven years. Ridge had completed a doctoral dissertation at Teachers College titled “Privileged and Penalized: The Education of Boys in the United Arab Emirates,” the first scholarly research ever done on education in RAK. Her work had revealed several reasons for the country’s “hidden gender gap.” In part, job opportunities for men in the Emirates were diverting boys from finishing their education, as were family obligations. But facets of the single-sex school system were also demotivating boys. Boys’ schools were more likely to use corporal punishment, for example. Perhaps most important, while girls were taught, for the most part, by Emirati women, boys were usually taught by male contract workers from Syria, Egypt and Jordan, countries where teacher preparation standards are lower.

It was powerful stuff, and since the work had been sponsored by RAK, Ridge figured her findings would get some play there. But she didn’t expect the ambitious idea that came from the emirate’s leader, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi. “He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to set up a foundation?’ ” Ridge recalls. “And he asked me to organize this.”

Today, as Executive Director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, Ridge leads a range of research-based community development efforts that includes training teachers, administrators and civil servants. Within that mix, the problem of boys’ underachievement in the emirate’s education system remains close to her heart – so much so that Ridge has put in some serious time at the prison in RAK, an all too common destination for many of the nation’s male dropouts. Her findings have led to the establishment of the prison’s first library. Now, classes in information technology and life skills are starting up there as well.

As a white Westerner and one of the few women in senior positions in RAK, Ridge is distinctly a member of a minority population. As such, she is sensitive to one of the most common pitfalls in international aid work: imposing her views on others. “You have to avoid being patronizing,” she says, “and be very sensitive to the culture and local needs.”

She credits TC’s program in international education, with its emphasis on economics and policy studies, for bolstering her confidence as a scholar and leader. But her job would be unthinkable, she says, without her long experience in RAK and her intellectual investment in studying the region’s social issues. “Working as a teacher and then as a doctoral student here was essential. It would be almost impossible to navigate the cultural and institutional context without that.”