Learning from the Ground Up: ELI Instructor Takes Mason to the Middle East

Posted: July 7, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

When Rae Roberts returns to the classroom to teach this fall, she will be surrounded by the desert. As one of the first administrators to move to George Mason University’s new international location at Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Roberts will direct the Foundation Program. This challenge will put her not only in a teaching role, but also in a learning role: adapting to a new culture and environment.

Though the RAK main campus will not hold classes until fall 2006, the Foundation Program will begin classes this September in a temporary location. Roberts will work with RAK students in much the same way the English Language Institute (ELI) works with students on Mason’s Fairfax Campus. She and her staff will prepare students for courses taught in English so they will be comfortable writing research papers and listening to lectures.

rae roberts
Rae Roberts, second from left, and her staff inside the temporary facility at RAK-Mason.

Roberts has had prior experience with Islamic countries; she lived for two months in Morocco and has traveled to Islamic parts of Indonesia. She has taken preliminary courses in Arabic and should have no trouble communicating, as many people living in RAK speak English.

During a recent site visit, when Roberts conducted interviews for staff positions, she discovered some cultural differences that were both startling and exciting. One of the challenges Roberts faces is teaching both men and women in the same classroom. In the Middle East, men and women often attend separate schools while growing up. This will be the first time many of the students will be learning in a coed classroom. “I don’t know how they will react. It will be very interesting to see,” she says. “I’m sure we will hit some cultural bumps along the way, but that’s also a learning experience.”

Though the courses and textbooks at RAK will be the same as in the United States, Roberts says she and her staff will try to adapt the materials to be appropriate for Middle Eastern culture whenever possible. “We are making efforts to be sensitive to Islamic values, and some of the textbooks we will use have been revised specifically for the Middle East,” she says. Also, staff members fluent in Arabic will be on-site to help with communication.

Outside of the classroom, Roberts will have other challenges, such as adapting to and learning about the culture, environment, and geography. If Northern Virginia seems hot and humid in the middle of summer, it is nothing compared with the UAE, where temperatures regularly reach into the 100s. The UAE also has a lot of open desert area and few trees. “The lack of green is surprising,” Roberts says. Camels are also a regular sight and can be used not only for travel but also for transporting goods across the desert. “They are more efficient over desert areas than cars would be,” Roberts explains.

Mohammed Al-Neaimi, an ELI student who studies at Mason in the United States, is from Al-Thait in the northern part of RAK and is eager to share his knowledge of the country with Roberts and other students, faculty, and staff coming to the Middle East. Al-Neaimi also mentions the weather as the most immediate shock to an outsider.

“The climate is hot and dry in the summer, and some years it’s a bit cold in the winter,” he says. “We didn’t have rain for six years, but this year we had rain for two weeks nonstop, which is so good.”

Roberts also noticed that the traditional dress of men and women can vary greatly in the Middle East. She saw men and women wearing Western dress as in the United States, but she also saw women covered head to toe in black. According to Al-Neaimi, men often wear the traditional white dress called a kandorah with a white or red head covering called a qetrah.

Roberts will return to RAK in mid-August for the September classes, which will be held in the Old Higher Colleges of Technology for Men in the Al Zahara area of RAK until the Mason-RAK campus shifts to its permanent site next year in a picturesque location on the RAK border on the Emirates Highway. In fall 2006, Mason-RAK will offer four degree programs. Students will have the option of studying in the United States as well, and upon graduation they will have an American degree from George Mason University.

Roberts is looking forward to her assignment as an administrator abroad. “I love that I have this extraordinary opportunity to be a part of creating the Foundation Program from the ground up. Being able to shape the program is very exciting,” she says.

Write to at