The school year at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) is coming to an end after seven weeks of online learning, following the sudden shift after COVID-19 countermeasures swept through the nation.
Earlier this spring, students awaited news to confirm the rumors about campuses in Education City shutting down in-person operations. On March 9, students at NU-Q received an email from the Office of the Dean announcing that beginning March 10, all in-person classes would be moved remotely.
The email asked students to “not report to campus, including student workers.” Faculty and staff, however, were expected to report as usual for the time being. Classes for the rest of the week were postponed and would resume online on March 15.
NU-Q, which operates on a semester system as opposed to Evanston’s quarter system, had just returned to classes after spring break ended a few days earlier. Students had seven weeks of school left.
Similar announcements echoed throughout the schools in Education City, a campus sponsored by Qatar Foundation which houses six American branch universities (including NU-Q), among other educational and research institutions.
Following the closure of facilities throughout Education City, NU-Q encouraged students who were on programs abroad, either for Journalism Residency or exchange in Evanston, to return to Qatar, but later gave students the choice to stay on a case-by-case basis. The University allowed students in Qatar to return to their home countries. Staff and faculty, except for senior management, received similar instructions, with the expectation that they could complete their responsibilities remotely.
Students living on campus learned they could expect financial support for housing costs after the end of regular school-year tenancy in May. After airline ticket prices skyrocketed, NU-Q also offered partial financial support to students who wanted to purchase flights home.
The university also gave students until the last day of the semester, April 30, to decide if they want to change any course grading statuses from grades to Pass/No Credit.
NU-Q’s Acting Dean and Professor in Residence, Craig LaMay, confirmed that NU-Q is already planning for an online fall.
“We’re planning to do an online semester because it’s a lot easier to plan for online and then go back into the classroom than to do it the other way, as we all now know,” LaMay said.
He added that reopening the campus would primarily be a decision made by Qatar Foundation.
Recently, students in the U.S., including at Northwestern, have called for tuition refunds.
“I feel for the students on this one,” LaMay said. “When I think of what we have to do for the fall, my big concern is, ‘Are we giving bang for buck, as best we can?’”
Concerns have arisen about how students would be able to afford on-campus housing once the semester ends.
“If students are here, no matter what, we’ll make sure that housing and food are taken care of, no student will wind up without food and without housing,” guaranteed LaMay.
Additionally, LaMay mentioned that he is trying to ensure the possibility of student workers at NU-Q continuing to work and earn an income over the summer.
LaMay has personally reached out to students and the wider community. He hosts regular weekly Instagram Live sessions through the NU-Q Student Affairs account (@nuqwildcats) and has also conducted town halls on Zoom for the wider community. LaMay also calls students personally to check on them.
“I do these things because I care about folks. Does it help? I sure hope so,” LaMay said.
Student Affairs and Health, Safety, Security & Environment have also held joint virtual sessions for the community.
Shortly after classes were moved online, students were informed that academic services such as academic advising, health and wellness counseling, career services and the writing center would continue virtually.
Student Affairs introduced initiatives to help students cope with the virtual environment. These included community-driven virtual cooking sessions (NU-Q Cooks), virtual coffee sessions with Student Affairs staff and mindfulness courses offered by NU-Q’s Health & Wellness counselor.
The change to an online environment was a surprise to the whole NU-Q community, especially with classes having to be restructured extensively due to the shift.
“Professors adapted to the change by changing the assignment structure to better suit how the students are dealing with the lockdown,” said Majid Al-Kuwari, a Qatari communication sophomore.
Maryam Gamar, an international student from Canada, has decided to stay in Qatar for the time being because she feared catching or bringing the coronavirus back during her travels.
“I think that NU-Q has been managing the coronavirus situation very well,” Gamar said. “They’ve been checking in with international students very frequently. I’ve gotten calls from the interim dean and people from student affairs just checking in with how I’m doing with school and groceries and mental health.”
While some international students decided to remain in Qatar, others have returned to their home countries.
Asmae Nakib, a journalism freshman at NU-Q, is an international student who returned to Morocco to stay with her family. While she was still in Qatar, Nakib recalled that NU-Q provided students at the dorms with free food and coloring books.
According to Nakib, her transition to online learning has been difficult, and she misses the in-person interactions she would usually have.
“NU-Q’s efforts to make the transition smoother are truly heartwarming,” Nakib said.
She also credited the Northwestern University in Qatar Student Union’s (NUQSU) efforts in keeping spirits high.
In Morocco, Nakib deals with being three hours behind the time in Qatar. The situation, however, is worse for Aneesa Khan, a communication sophomore at NU-Q, who returned home to New Jersey to be with family.
In New Jersey, Khan is eight hours behind Doha time, and her class schedule ranges from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m.
“I can’t really afford to sleep much, so I just keep going through the day, and I burn out really quickly,” Khan said.
Khan also added that she is concerned about classes potentially staying online in the fall. However, Khan said she is grateful to be with family at this time and mentioned that professors have been very accommodating to her circumstances.
Bisrat Tasew, an international student from Ethiopia, returned home shortly after in-person classes were cancelled.
“I have friends and family in universities in the U.S., and they are surprised by how much help we are getting from our university,” Tasew said.
The NUQSU has made an effort to ensure student voices are heard during this time. Sarah Shaath, a graduating journalism senior and NUQSU president, feels that the administration has listened to her and the NUQSU.
According to Shaath, meetings were held with the dean, the facilities department, the production department and student affairs to ensure that students felt supported. Shaath says NUQSU suggested the option for Pass/No Credit.
“This pandemic also gave a lot of legitimacy to NUQSU and the importance of student concerns,” Shaath said.
For now, graduation has been postponed and is planned to be held in December. All in-person celebrations for the seniors have also been cancelled.
“I think it’s unfortunate for us that we don’t get a proper celebration,” Shaath said.
However, she added that NUQSU is still planning with administration to have some form of celebration for the seniors. Shaath said that during this time, administration has been supportive.
“Dean LaMay has been so amazing, and he cares about his whole community and the stakeholders,” Shaath said.
NU-Q officially ends the semester and 2019-2020 school year after the last day of finals on April 30.
“I’m hopeful for the future. I have faith in the place, and I have faith in the people,” LaMay said.