Pandemic Disrupts Arab Students’ Dreams of Studying Abroad

/ 08 Jul 2020

Pandemic Disrupts Arab Students’ Dreams of Studying Abroad

Thousands of students in the Arab World who had hoped to complete their higher education overseas this fall are having to put their dreams on hold because of closed university campuses in the United States and Europe, travel and visa restrictions, strained finances and other hardships brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some who wanted to come to the United States now find that possibility hinges on university decisions about whether to hold classes in person or online. U.S. immigration officials announced this week that student visas would not be issued to people enrolled in programs that are fully online, and that students already in the United States must leave “or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction,” if they want to remain.

Bishoy Magdy Zaki, a 29-year-old Egyptian, is among the students whose plans were in limbo. Zaki was preparing to start a Ph.D. program in the United States in September, but the coronavirus lockdown measures “stopped everything,” he said.

Zaki, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cairo University and a master’s degree in public policy from the American University in Cairo, was accepted at three doctoral scholarship programs in the United States late last year and was supposed to choose one by the end of April. But when the coronavirus crisis made it unlikely he would get to study on a U.S. campus this fall, he requested one-year postponements of his scholarship offers.

On-Campus Study Preferred

“It seems that universities are suffering financially,” Zaki said in a phone call. “One of the universities that had previously accepted my request to postpone the scholarship for the next year reconsidered its decision and asked me to start studying online or not to continue the scholarship.”

The university told him that because of the financial stress caused by the coronavirus, funding would be withdrawn for international students who could not travel on schedule, Zaki explained.

The other two universities have told Zaki that they can postpone his admission for the next year, or he can start by distance education this year and travel later when the situation stabilizes. But Zaki wants to study in the United States even if he has to wait a year.

“My dream is to travel and study abroad, not to study from here online,” he said.

He added that the scholarship offers included a research assistantship that would pay him enough to help cover his personal expenses—a benefit he would lose if he studied remotely.

“My dream is to travel and study abroad, not to study from here online.”

Bishoy Magdy Zaki   a 29-year-old Egyptian student

Another student, Menna Ali, a 27-year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo, is in a similar predicament. Ali was preparing to start a Ph.D. program at Columbia University, in New York, but “all travel procedures have stopped because of the epidemic,” she said.

Like Zaki, she rejects the idea of studying remotely. “The university has not yet contacted me about alternative plans,” she said. “However, I do not wish to study online.”

Studying remotely would mean “that I will lose my travel experience and meeting colleagues from other nationalities,” Ali said. “This is an important and essential part of the experience of studying abroad.”

She understands that the university is still sorting out the details of its plans for reopening this fall. “The situation in the United States, and specifically in New York, is dangerous,” she said. “I think they are now helpless to do anything and just waiting, just like me here, until the situation stabilizes.”

Postponed Dreams

Summer is usually the season when students who have just finished high school are getting ready for the next step in their academic journey. However, things look different this year.

“There is a clear change in the behavior of students. Instead of being busy writing to universities and filling out visa applications, they are concerned about the possibility of actually traveling abroad safely and pursuing the studies they have always dreamed of,” said Sami Al-Ahmad, a co-founder of MARJ3, a platform specialized in advertising opportunities abroad. (See a related article, “MARJ3, a Platform Linking Youth and Education, Takes a New Path After Covid-19.”)

Al-Ahmad says the delays by universities in announcing their plans for the fall left many students unable to make a decision about studying abroad. Students also face logistical hurdles in applying for visas or booking travel when many flights are canceled.

“Applying for a visa is a detailed process that requires many documents on one’s  education, financial and health status,” said Al-Ahmad. “The lockdown measures have made these tasks difficult to implement, especially in light of the delay in the date of holding secondary school exit exams in many Arab countries.”

Money is also a factor. Al-Ahmed believes that the number of students able to study abroad at their own expense is declining, because of the impact of the pandemic on many families’ finances.

Abdelkader Hamdouni, a professor of mathematics at the University of Tunis, agrees that the pandemic is affecting the future of many students in Tunisia and the Arab region.

“Everything is now halted and postponed until further notice—examinations, university admission and visas. This puts students and their families in great confusion.”

Abdelkader Hamdouni   a professor of mathematics at the University of Tunis

“Everything is now halted and postponed until further notice—examinations, university admission and visas,” he said. “This puts students and their families in great confusion. There is not enough information reassuring the health status or clarifying the available study opportunities.”

Scholarships Suspended

Covid-19 has also cast a shadow on Arab governments’ scholarship programs for their students who want to study overseas, including those of Gulf states known for their generosity. Some countries have postponed scholarships for the next year, while others have not yet made a final decision in this regard.

The Sultanate of Oman announced that it would suspend its National Postgraduate Scholarship Program for the 2020–21 academic year and use the suspension period to evaluate the program “and consider alternatives to scholarships for postgraduate studies in accordance with the financial conditions of the government.”

Khalaf Al-Abri, an assistant professor at the College of Education at Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman, said the announcement came while the scholarship application process was well under way. “Submitting applications was opened, the students applied and the applications were sorted,” he said, “but the government recently announced the suspension of the scholarships for one year to study and evaluate the situation.”

In Qatar, registration for scholarships has been closed until further notice.

In Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, application for government scholarship programs is still open. However, the dates for determining requests and announcing results are still unclear.

“The conditions are still under study globally,” said Camilia Sobhy, head of the cultural affairs and missions sector at the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education. “We have committees set up to study the situation in detail and negotiate with universities abroad,” she added. “Within a month at most, the vision will be clear.”

Sobhy believes that it is too early for new students to worry about enrolling at universities abroad, especially with final exams postponed in many countries and starting dates for the new academic year not yet set.

Many students, however, do not feel the same way.

“I got admitted to study for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in the U.S.A. as part of the government scholarship program,” said Bandar Al-Suwait, a graduate of the College of Engineering at Jeddah Public University. “But I am concerned and feel afraid that the current circumstances will cause the program to be suspended temporarily.”

Al-Suwait pointed out that he has no way to communicate with the university, which has asked students to wait for further information. “I have no choice but to wait,” he said.




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