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Kherieh Rassas Aims to Help Palestinian Students Compete Globally

/ 24 Jan 2022

Kherieh Rassas Aims to Help Palestinian Students Compete Globally

Kherieh Rassas, a long-time educator and advocate in Palestinian higher education, is committed to preparing Palestinian students to work and study anywhere in the world.

In her role as vice president for international and external relations at An-Najah National University, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Rassas strives to help students and faculty members obtain scholarships abroad and to make the university’s research more international.

She recently spoke with Al-Fanar Media about her work there and other milestones of her career.

Advanced Studies in Optometry

“Western universities depend on research funding by linking it to industries, which we do not find in our universities. This is because the industries available in Palestine are relatively small and do not depend on research.”

Rassas finished high school in Jerusalem in 1988 and had her choice of scholarships in Russia, Israel or France. She chose to take the French government’s offer of a full scholarship to study for a bachelor’s degree in optometry at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris.

She returned to Jerusalem in 1992 and worked at Jerusalem hospitals and the Palestinian Relief Organisation. “I was the only daughter among four male siblings, so I chose to return as soon as I got my bachelor’s degree,” she said.

During this period, she also married and had four children, but she never lost her dream of postgraduate study. Scholarships allowed her to pursue a master’s degree in South Africa, followed by a Ph.D. in the United Kingdom, in optometry and visual science.

On her return to Palestine in 2004, she founded the territories’ first Faculty of Optometry, at An-Najah National University.

Building International Connections

In 2007, Rassas became vice president for international and external relations at An-Najah and established an international scholarship office. She also began working to obtain international recognition of An-Najah’s study programmes, which remains a major concern of for her.

International recognition of the university’s degrees allows students to complete their graduate studies anywhere, she said.

Over the past 15 years, Rassas has organised about 300 scholarships for university students to obtain master’s and doctoral degrees abroad.

“We open the way to the gifted, even from other universities, provided they return to teach at our university,” she said. “We have distinguished researchers in scientific fields, such as medicine, science, engineering and the environment, and we are networking them with researchers from other universities to obtain appropriate funding.”

Rassas added that the university also encouraged graduates to work in applied research fields that generate financial returns through foreign partnerships. This in turn contributes to the commercialisation of research by linking it to industry.

Obstacles Hinder Research Funding

The average spending of Arab countries on research in 2018 was between 0.5 and 1 percent of gross domestic product, Rassas said, citing World Bank statistics.

Kherieh Rassas was recently made a Knight of France’s National Order of Merit for her efforts in building Palestinian-French relations. (Photo courtesy of Kherieh Rassas)
Kherieh Rassas was recently made a Knight of France’s National Order of Merit for her efforts in building Palestinian-French relations. (Photo courtesy of Kherieh Rassas)

Palestinian universities suffer from a lack of government funding as a result, she said. They are also held back by lack of links to industry, another source of funding, she said.

“This creates a huge disparity between Arab universities and Western universities,” she said.

“Western universities depend on research funding by linking them to industries, which we do not find in our universities. This is because the industries available in Palestine are relatively small and do not depend on research. Connecting research with industries requires a broad networking process between government, academics, civil society and industrialists.”

Covid-19 and Online Study

Years before the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rassas established a centre for e-learning at An-Najah National University. Work began on building courses and study programmes electronically, and on training professors to build their own electronic courses and exams.

“Covid-19 came and we were ready,” Rassas said. “We had materials and trained professors. The problem we faced was related to the students, as not every student had a computer, or the Internet.”

She said the university helped ease the students’ problem by establishing an initiative to lend computers to about 4,000 students who did not have them. The university also provided Internet packages free for students in remote areas.

“E-learning had to be used, but interaction in university life remains important. First-year students need to attend and see their colleagues and professors and enter the laboratories, and there are scientific disciplines that require actual attendance.”

But Rassas added: “Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. E-learning had to be used, but interaction in university life remains important. First-year students need to attend and see their colleagues and professors, and enter the laboratories, and there are scientific disciplines that require actual attendance.”

Education and Jobs

Regarding the debate over unemployment and the extent to which scientific disciplines are linked to the needs of the labor market, Rassas said it is important to provide students with skills so that they are able to compete globally.

“The absorption of the local market is limited, so we are working on graduating students who are able to work anywhere. We consider all disciplines to be important, and we are looking into continuing education, in coordination with the European Union, to provide students with the skills needed for the international labor market.”

Advocacy for Vulnerable Groups

Besides her university work, Rassas has also served a political role. She was a personal advisor to the former Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah between 2013 and 2019. Hamdallah was president of An-Najah National University at the time of his appointment.

Rassas said her mission was to advocate for equal rights for marginalized groups, and trying to bridge the gaps between the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong.

She assisted efforts to get laws approved in areas of public health, bioequivalence, assistance for people with autism and other special needs, and the status of women. Despite the approval of most of these laws, however, “most of them were suspended when the government was changed.”

International Honours

Rassas has been honored internationally in more than one forum. In 2005, she received Britain’s Queen Elizabeth Prize for her charitable work helping children and marginalised people in remote areas get eyesight exams and free treatment and glasses.

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She was also made a Knight of France’s National Order of Merit, the country’s highest honor, for her efforts in building Palestinian-French relations.

Rassas says that she considers every medal she has received as “a sign of success for the Palestinian woman.”

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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام