Fall 2010

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The Launch: Creating a New Campus

NU-Q pioneers reflect on the early days in Doha for Northwestern.

by Sean Hargadon

When Robert Ferrin, the former NU-Q admission director and later director of marketing and public relations, started in Doha in February 2008, he was a true pioneer. One of the first members of the startup team on the ground in Qatar, Ferrin went to work in a suite of offices in the Texas A&M building. “The TAMU people had graciously set us up with computers,” says Susan Dun, now a senior lecturer in communication who helped lead the startup team as associate dean for admission and student affairs. “There was one printer. There was a scanner, but there wasn’t a copy machine. There was no coffee. There wasn’t even a pencil.”

Longtime higher education veteran and founding NU-Q dean John Margolis says it’s difficult to exaggerate the challenges and the excitement of launching an entire campus. “There is a surprise a day, and the NU-Q team — and it really has been a team effort — has created a viable University campus where in summer 2008 there was nothing.”

Ferrin, Dun and the school’s two senior associate deans, Richard Roth in journalism and Mimi White in communication, set to work on assembling the first class of students, interviewing and recruiting just six months before the start of school.

“It was a leap of faith for every one of those kids,” Dun says of the first class. Early on, she wondered if NU-Q’s programs would have appeal in the region. On a recruiting visit to an independent school for Qatari girls in Doha, she asked the students if they had heard of Zach Braff (C97), Stephen Colbert (C86) or Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (C83, H07), all Northwestern alumni.

“They went from uptight, prim and proper, to this giggling gaggle of girls,” Dun says. “That was the moment when I went ‘Ah, OK, underneath those robes, they’re the same.’ The surface may look different, but in very fundamental ways, the similarities are striking.”

Beyond building a class, the startup team had to create policies and processes from scratch. Some elements continue to be refined. 

“While it’s great to be able to shape what’s happening here,” says Becca Donaldson (C08), “it makes me nostalgic for having some things that are just a given. Here, nothing is a given. The hard thing about working here is there are very few precedents.”

Now, three years into NU-Q, the pioneers look back on what they’ve built with pride. 

“A lot of us who have been here since the very beginning, we sit and reminisce about the old days,” says Julia Wysocki (GSESP08), who came to NU-Q in August 2008. “It’s kind of like boot camp, where we survived that, so we’re a little bit stronger and we have those bonds.”