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Improving access to higher education for students in the Middle East

By Jane Larsson, CIS Executive Director


As I boarded a plane to Jordan last month, I felt excited to be returning … for many reasons. I last visited the country in 2015 together with the CIS Board of Trustees during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. We had purposefully scheduled our meeting there to learn more about the region and the impact of the crisis on education. That visit significantly changed my perspective on life in the region as we learned of heroic efforts underway by Jordanians to welcome their neighbors. Our return to Jordan this year was significant—we launched our first ever Middle East Institute on International Admission and Guidance in Amman, in a country that has never closed its borders to its neighbors. Hana Kanan and her team at the International Academy Amman warmly welcomed us as they hosted the Institute.

Our Higher Education Regional Institutes are designed to develop the knowledge of university admissions officers with programming unique to a region, its culture and educational systems. In Amman, school counsellors from across the region shared their perspective on how to effectively support refugee student communities, an emotionally powerful session that caused many of the university staff who attended to rethink their Middle East outreach strategies.

I feel very proud of my colleagues at CIS and our many higher education volunteers who work diligently each year to plan international events that connect university professionals with students in our schools. A number of our school communities are in corners of the world that are less travelled, therefore with less access to events that can reach their students as they transition to universities. We planned our Middle East Institute in Jordan for precisely this reason.

In Amman, school counsellors described barriers faced by a number of their students as they try to access higher education and then travel across and beyond the region if admitted to attend. One powerful presentation laid out the challenges faced by many Palestinian students, recommending ways we can better help schools serving refugee populations. Challenges include a lack of access to information and support for students aspiring to higher education outside their location, students who are victims of circumstance, and students who face discrimination as refugees without the necessary documentation to gain university recognition. In response, a number of the university members who attended described how helpful the session was, expanding their perspectives and strengthening their interest and readiness for face-to-face networking in locations where many had hesitated to travel. 

Counsellors Chris Akel, Nora El Zokm and Bethany Morton-Jerome told us how their Palestinian students would benefit from more visits and from motivational conversations to help them understand university application processes around the world, and for all parties to understand the differences in communication norms unique to their region. A video showed many Palestinian students explaining this directly, including one Palestinian student in Lebanon who referred to access to higher education as enabling refugee children to move "to hero from zero". I won’t forget that statement for a long time. Since the Institute, we received a lot of positive feedback about this session and we will follow up with the counsellors to learn more about how we can help.

The CIS vision is to inspire ‘the development of global citizens through high-quality international education: connecting ideas, cultures and educators from every corner of the world.’ We put our vision into action by expanding access for our school counsellors and students to our global network of universities while busting some of the myths associated with traveling in the region. Even more rewarding, we brought together 32 schools from 9 countries (Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Israel, South Africa) and 73 Universities from 13 countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, HK, Italy, Japan, Ireland, Netherlands, Qatar, Switzerland, UK, US) to broaden perspectives for the hundreds of students they collectively serve.

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