American Colleges Recruit in Middle East

[…] this spring the admissions deans of the five leading women’s colleges — Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley and Smith — went recruiting to a place where single-sex education is more than a niche product: the Middle East.

For three weeks they visited schools in Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, describing what a liberal-arts women’s college can offer academically ambitious students. (They skipped Saudi Arabia, where, their trip coordinator warned, they might need a male escort.)

Like universities nationwide, the five women’s colleges are expanding their overseas recruiting, and although reaching out to the Middle East seems logical to them, in some ways it is an odd fit.

While single-sex schools in the Middle East are protected environments, reflecting women’s traditional roles in Muslim society, the American colleges, for all their white-glove history and academic prominence, are liberal strongholds where students fiercely debate political action, gender identity and issues like “heteronormativity,” the marginalizing of standards that are other than heterosexual. Middle Eastern students who already attend these colleges tell of a transition that can be jarring.

On their trip to the Middle East, the American deans visited American international schools, British-model schools, Indian-model schools, coeducational schools filled with children of expatriates and schools of local girls who do not much mix with men. Reactions varied, according to e-mail messages from counselors and students at the schools, but over all the region seemed fertile ground for recruiting. For some families, the colleges represented a compromise between the familiarity of home and an all-out plunge into American ways.

“You could almost see light bulbs going off in student’s minds, as if, ‘Why didn’t I think of them a while ago?’ ” said Jennifer Melton, a counselor at the American School in Dubai.

“You could also see parents exhale with less anxiety around the process,” Ms. Melton said, “and the fact that there really are institutions that are a good fit for their daughters.”

Over all, the deans said, selling single-sex education was less difficult than selling the liberal arts in a region where professional education is more the norm.

“The question we got most often was, ‘What would I do afterwards?’ ” said Ms. Rickard, of Bryn Mawr. “I talked about how liberal arts prepared you for the jobs that haven’t been invented yet. The example I’d give is my own career. I was a liberal arts student when there were no computers, and then I found myself at a software company.”

I wonder how I would have done at a university for women only. I sure am glad that my basic training class was all-female.


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