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Why Do Arab Students Refrain From Applying to Study Abroad?

/ 21 Sep 2021

Why Do Arab Students Refrain From Applying to Study Abroad?

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Many students in the Arab world refrain from applying to study at major international universities due to different salient reasons like finances or doubting their quality of education back home. However, I can say, in light of my personal and practical experience, these are not the true underlying reasons that need to be addressed.

Through my journey to study abroad and obtain a master’s degree from Harvard University with a concentration in Leadership and Innovation, I found that there are two main reasons for this reluctance to study abroad, both of which are related to individuals’ perceptions of themselves and the nature of what is hidden in their subconscious mind.

This conviction was confirmed after years of working in the field of academic and professional counseling and guidance.  I realized that the first reason is psychological, while the second reason is skill-related, as most applicants to study abroad lack some of the skills that form the backbone of experience.

‘Learned Helplessness’

As for the psychological cause, the famous psychologist Martin Seligman termed it “learned helplessness.” This type of what I call “psychological disability” is not caused by a congenital defect or an injury, or as a result of compulsions a person cannot control, but rather is acquired unintentionally, often from an early age.

It appears to be a result of the family milieu and the common style of upbringing in the surrounding environment, but its effects extend inside the mind to become a doctrine within a person’s established beliefs.  People with learned helplessness respond to the discourse and external talk they receive from their surroundings, such as: “You won’t be able to; you do not have sufficient competence; you are not qualified or good enough; you do not deserve to study at this level of major universities. …”

Repeatedly, students get used to listening to these frustrating voices whenever they try to take on a new experience that is unfamiliar to those around them. Later, they may find themselves repeating these discouraging statements to themselves without realizing it, turning external talk into destructive self-talk.

I suggested to a colleague of mine, whom I considered highly distinguished academically, to apply for a Ph.D. program at Harvard, but he scoffed at the idea, saying: “Harvard! You know the level of language that it requires! And the level of excellence required!”

I remember that I suggested to a colleague of mine, whom I considered highly distinguished academically, to apply for a Ph.D. program at Harvard, but he scoffed at the idea, saying: “Harvard! You know the level of language that it requires! And the level of excellence required!”

I was amazed at the time, as my colleague had already judged himself a failure before he heard or read anything about the requirements, and he thought that he did not deserve the opportunity. I was even more surprised because my colleague had done his master’s degree studies in the United States and got a high rating, but it seems he still didn’t believe that he could!

Lack of Positive Self-Expression

As for the skill-related reason, it is associated with the lack and weakness of the skill of positive self-expression in our societies, as the common culture and methods of education do not help this.

In the phrasing class, the student learns to express everything outside, events, and situations. They also may write about their visit to the book fair or about the day they spent with their families at the park or by the sea, but they never learned to express themselves and reflect the thoughts, beliefs, feelings and fears that are on their minds. Therefore, they are often unable to reveal their ambitions, dreams, and future plans, as well as their fear of the comments from those around them if they dare to deviate from the traditional course towards imagination, which is the greatest thing that people possess.

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In addition, a common culture is widespread in our society that prevents children from mentioning their praiseworthy qualities or achievements because this is considered to be bragging and arrogance. While children need to learn humility, this may lead to them becoming overly modest in everything: their dreams, their self-confidence, and their choices. Then, the parents wonder why the child’s abilities declined after becoming a young adult! “He was a genius in his childhood,” they whisper sadly. Yes, he was so before his subconscious was poisoned with all these toxins.

At Harvard, I witnessed students who were more modest than many of the Arab students in terms of their scientific, social and economic levels, but their societies established in them that they are good, capable and worthy of the position they have reached, and they can mention their achievements in their university application letters with ease and without reprimanding others or accusing them of arrogance, haughtiness and snobbery.

Helping Students Understand Themselves

I think that it is time for more Arab students to learn this skill, and the evidence is that I personally learned it after reaching the age of 30 and after many failed attempts. Now, I teach it and review the files of students applying for scholarships and help them understand themselves and assess their skills before applying.

The realization of the dream of studying in the world’s major universities remains possible if the student chooses by his/her free will to do so, but the embodiment of this will requires different forms of support.

Whenever my students face a problem, I smile and remember that during my studies at Harvard I was hardly trying to succeed, and for a period I felt that I was not qualified to excel as I had excelled at Cairo University, and I was surprised when I reached the end of the academic year that I obtained two awards of excellence, not just one. After that, I became the official contact person for Harvard University in Egypt and remained in the position for four years. I was also one of the founding members of the Harvard alumni association in Egypt, also known as the Harvard Club of Egypt. This is the biggest evidence that achieving dreams is not linked to a specific age, but rather requires a lot of diligence, perseverance, failure and trying again.

The realization of the dream of studying in the world’s major universities remains possible if the student chooses by his/her free will to do so, but the embodiment of this will requires different forms of support.

First, we have to tell students that they are good enough and worthy of big opportunities.

Second, we must provide them with assistance to express themselves and to teach them this skill and train them thereto.

The application letter, which goes by several names, including Personal Statement or Motivation Letter, is the most important part of applying to a university, and it determines, to a very high degree, the extent to which the committee is satisfied with the applicant.

In conclusion, I strongly believe that self-expression and self-confidence are among the most significant prerequisites for success and achieving goals, whether they are academic, professional, or life goals. It is always better to start this journey from childhood, as this shortens many steps. But even at a later age, it is also possible to rectify what was missed with appropriate training.

Samaa Hosny is an academic and student counseling expert, and the founding director of the Student Mentorship and Career Counseling Unit of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, where she is also an assistant professor of applied statistics. Email: [email protected]




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