Special Feature: inaugural commencement in doha

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NU-Q Class of 2012: 'You Are the Story'

Qatar campus' first graduates feted at emotional, pride-filled ceremony

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May 9, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley
Produced by Erin White

DOHA, Qatar --- President Morton Schapiro praised the inaugural graduating class of Northwestern University in Qatar Wednesday in a ceremony brimming with purple pride -- from the decorations to the joy in the faces of family, friends and Northwestern faculty and staff.

Amid tears, cheers and standing ovations, the 36 members of the Class of 2012 made history as the first students at NU-Q to earn Bachelor of Science degrees in journalism and communication. Along the way, they impressed their professors, won numerous awards and grew into young men and women ready for the 21st-century media world.

NU-Q Dean Everette Dennis capped the ceremony with an address to about 1,000 people who came to support the class. He announced that the faculty has approved the graduates’ work and they are now qualified to have their degrees conferred in the graduation ceremony in Evanston when they visit June 15.

The ceremony was momentous and emotional -- from the students marching down the aisles in their robes to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” to the warm words of their classmate Zainab Sultan, who was chosen as the class speaker. It was charged with the sense that this class really was already changing the world

A traveling delegation of more than 50 senior officials, trustees, faculty and deans from Evanston, including President Emeritus Henry S. Bienen, under whose term NU-Q was created, came to Doha for the ceremony.

Perhaps commencement speaker Ramy Khouri, a Lebanese journalist and scholar and a member of the NU-Q Joint Advisory Board, said it best when he told the graduating seniors they are already part of the story of the Arab Spring sweeping the region. They can tell their story best, he said, because of the skills acquired at NU-Q in media, journalism and communication.

“The changing Arab world today is the single greatest story any promising journalist could cover today,” said Kouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. “It’s about the triumph of the human spirit and not just the Arab world.

“It is the single biggest story in a generation, and it is falling into your lap. You leave here with a formidable toolkit to cover it in all the ways you will find work in the region,” he added. “You are not just another ordinary graduating class. You are the story. How many of you have already done stories or films about justice and change? All 36 of you are part of the story.”

This extraordinary class of students comes from 17 nations, including Qatar, and its members speak multiple languages and hail from six continents. They are the culmination of a bold experiment by Northwestern, with the support of the Qatar Foundation, to start a new campus more than 7,000 miles from Evanston in a volatile Middle East. Clearly, the graduating students were moved.

“I was crying my eyes out, and I’m just overwhelmed,” enthused Nayaab Shaikh, 24, a communication major from India, after the ceremony ended. “These four years have been the culmination of all my efforts and my parents’ efforts, and it’s just an overwhelming feeling to be standing on that stage, and you’re so proud, and they’re clapping for you.”

Omer Mohammad, a Canadian-Pakistani majoring in communication and the student government president, has been actively tweeting commencement activities. “I’m very excited,” he said with a big smile. “After the event, my emotional level went way up. I’m speechless.”

As they have grown and matured and increased in confidence and skills, the students also have won the affection of President Schapiro, Provost Daniel Linzer, founding Dean John Margolis, current Dean Dennis, former President Bienen, Board of Trustees Chairman William Osborn, and many other trustees, and especially the faculty members and staffers from Doha to Evanston who taught them.

“This is a purple dream,” Schapiro told the audience in his opening remarks, noting that the Class of 2012 has already proven itself with its cutting-edge work, awards and recognitions, including receiving two President’s Awards from the Qatar Foundation Tuesday, to Sara Al-Saadi and Zainab Sultan.

Sultan remembers how she was impressed as a freshman with the Evanston students and the work they did and how she felt she could never do anything that good. When she told that to Assistant Professor of Journalism Abraham Abusharif, she recalls he told her: “Yes, you will, and you’ll do it better.” And she told her classmates they all have proven that true.

“It was a beautiful and moving experience -- the culmination of many great things that have happened at NU-Q. It is exciting to think about what these graduates will do,” said Associate Professor of Journalism Mary Dedinsky.

Schapiro recalled how the class started out their freshman year at the Texas A&M University’s building here, later moved to bigger rooms for classes and finally ended up working in borrowed space in the Carnegie Mellon University building. It will be at least two years before NU-Q has its new building complete and a true home of its own.

Calling NU-Q one of Northwestern’s 12 schools, Schapiro emphasized that this was not a “branch campus.” He delighted the audience when he underscored the fact: “We have three main campuses at Northwestern, one in Evanston, one in Chicago and one in Doha.

“You are the true pioneers, the ones who believed in the promise of the role this place could play in the world -- in media, journalism and communication,” he said. “I enthusiastically welcome you as the newest members of our alumni. Congratulations.”

Eugene Lowe Jr., assistant to the president and senior lecturer in religious studies, was deeply moved by the ceremony and lingered afterwards taking photos of the American and Qatar flags side by side on the stage.

”It was one of my most amazing experiences at Northwestern to be here for this,” Lowe said after the graduates marched out. “Something truly extraordinary is happening here. It was very moving. The experience reminds me of how I felt at the Rose Bowl when Northwestern made it there. It’s amazing -- from Pasadena to Doha. What an extraordinary journey.”

Provost Linzer, co-chair of the NU-Q Joint Advisory Board, took over the job of provost in September 2007, and the University signed the contract for NU-Q two months later. He has traveled to Doha about a dozen times over the years helping bring about today’s culmination.

“Clearly we did not plan an Arab Spring to happen,” he said after the ceremony, “but this has engaged these students much like the students on our Evanston and Chicago campuses were engaged when Barack Obama’s election happened in 2008, and our students were drawn into that learning experience.”

He cited the benefits of the NU-Q students learning in Qatar -- the headquarters of Al Jazeera -- in the era of Twitter and Facebook as the Arab Spring broke. “Students have been impacted in ways that could never be created in a classroom,” Provost Linzer said.

“What if you really could initiate change by empowering the society to do it? That’s really the way it started because the Qatari government set up Al Jazeera and their influence spread.”

Bienen reflected on NU-Q as one major aspect of his presidential legacy after the celebration. “I was really moved,” he said. “I was asked whether, of all the things I did in my time here, that starting this would loom large, and that’s really true.

“When we started, we had a sense that what we were doing would have an impact, but I don’t think of how much of an impact it would have, not just for Qatar, but for the region and the world, and on Northwestern as well.”

“It’s like a pebble you throw in a pond, and the rings from it keep growing and growing.”