When most people think of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern they think of the Evanston, Illinois, campus just north of Chicago. But there’s another campus of undergraduate students earning degrees at Medill a world away — in Qatar’s Education City. It’s a strange little incubator of Western education, with six different American schools clustered in one spot, allowing students to mix and match courses from Northwestern along with Texas A&M, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and others.
Northwestern in Qatar was launched in 2008 and has grown to more than 200 students — the vast majority coming from the Middle East (40% from Qatar). Though the school is in a region not known for a fearless free press, cable news giant Al Jazeera is headquartered in the same city and has struck a tone of defiance in some cases. I recently spoke in depth to the school’s dean, Everette Dennis, who told me students get the same curriculum — and degree — as students in Evanston, and the school promotes freedom of expression with journalism and documentary films.
“The students have been very bold and very tough, I think, in covering stories that aren’t instantly popular here,” Dennis told me via a Google Hangout. “They’ve covered stories of the whole issue of labor conditions, which are getting better but not what they ought to be, and a number of things that would not be perceived as all that welcome by some of the people in the country. And they’ve been able to do it, and I think with grace and finesse, and with evidence. It’s not just advocacy but I think serious journalism.”
I spoke to Dennis about the aims of the school, the challenges of a multicultural and global student body, and how the job market in Qatar differs from the U.S. (spoiler: jobs are more in demand in Qatar). Below is the video of our entire interview, along with an edited transcript.
Edited Transcript of Q&A
When did the journalism school start, and what was the impetus behind starting it?
Everette Dennis: Well, it started in 2008, and the university was invited by the Qatar Foundation to develop a school of journalism and communications, liberal arts and some other coursework. And so the university wanted to expand its Middle Eastern imprint and have an international campus, which they didn’t. And so those were the big factors. And they thought, if there’s anything that Northwestern, with its wonderful traditions in journalism and communications, could do in the Middle East, it would be to promote freedom of expression through quality journalism, documentary films and a lot more.
And so that was the genesis of it, and the place has grown considerably since then. We have quite an extraordinary faculty that’s come from around the world, the student body has grown from 40 students to about 220 now, and they’re getting jobs in all the right places in media, as well as going to some of the world’s best graduate schools. So we’re very happy with the result here.
So it’s an undergraduate program, it’s a four-year program?
You mentioned promoting freedom of expression. Have you had success in doing that there?
Dennis: I think so. The first thing is to make it clear what we mean by that, and to constantly talk about what a free and independent media system is all about. The students practice this in the classroom, we go out into the community and do things, and there are occasional bumps on the road on this. It’s not a part of the world that has a long tradition for this kind of freedom of expression. But it is getting better, and so we think we’ve had an impact. We’ve also worked with the leadership of Al Jazeera and the Doha Film Institute and others to promote better professional development for their folks. And we think that’s having an impact as well.
And the local newspapers, which were once pretty much PR releases, very uncritical material, I see an improvement. Which is incremental, but it’s happening.
What’s the attraction for you and the rest of the faculty to be in Qatar, in a place so far away from Evanston?
Dennis: Well, nothing’s far away anymore! I think the incentive is — I think it’s really a noble cause to be part of this kind of enterprise. We could do this anywhere, but I think in the Middle East, in a country like Qatar, which has a pretty progressive spirit but which also has a enormous number of problems, it’s a great place to work this out and to see the results of students who are ready to develop the country itself, or the region, ready to get this kind of experience — it’s really amazing, energizing and gratifying, to see this happen. People are compensated quite decently, and they get to travel back and forth and get to international meetings, and so one can stay in touch with their peers in various fields and in specialty areas.
And increasingly, when we advertise for faculty, we get hundreds of applications from some of the best places in the world. So there’s definitely a sense of momentum here and people rooting about the program and some of our work and research, and they want to come.
And where do the students come from? Are they typically from Qatar or from the area, are they from other parts of the world?
Dennis: About 40 percent come from the state of Qatar where they are citizens. That’s one thing we were committed to do. The rest come [mostly] from the immediate area, but they have up to 35 different passports from different countries. A lot from the Middle East, we have people from Europe, from the U.K., we got a few from Latin America, Africa. We have more, increasingly, coming from the U.S. now. So it’s pretty varied. And I think that’s a very good thing. It’s a very diverse student body. Everybody is at least bilingual, if not trilingual, and they have all of these passports in one place, it’s terrific.
It’s also a very heavily female school. About 81 or 82 percent are women, and we think that’s very terrific because women have had the least opportunity to get high quality education in the region and they’re less likely to be allowed to leave the country to get an education, so this has made a real contribution.
What’s the career path after getting your journalism or communication degree? It used to be, go work for a newspaper, go work for a radio station, TV station, etc. Now that’s really changing. How do you prepare people for a world that’s just really different for journalists right now?
Dennis: Well, the news market is a totally disruptive world. Some of our students do want to work for television and for satellite television, Al Jazeera … or there’s a very strong local station, Qatar TV, which has taken some of our students and really almost revolutionized the format. They go into radio. But they also go and work for digital media companies, and some of them have gone out and started their own enterprises. One of them from the very first class started a film production company which is quite successful here now. And I think we’re going to see more and more of that.
A lot of them are going to grad school. They want to get some additional experience and come back with some specialization or do some variant, whether it’s business or law or something else. So they might do that. But there are plenty of jobs here. It’s a little different than I think the U.S. in that we have a very active media here and a great need for talent. So every student can certainly get multiple offers if they want them and would consider them.
Can you explain how your residency program works, and what kinds of opportunities there are for them to work inside organizations?
Dennis: Well the students have an active opportunity to really travel the world. We have the residency program, the journalism residency program from the Medill School of Journalism model. And they go off for ten weeks in the winter to anything from The Economist, to National Geographic, to a small daily in Texas, to Chicago and New York media, media in London. And they go into these news organizations, wires services, they go into communications consultancies and PR firms, they go into ministries, government, embassies, etc. So you get that experience, and it’s heavily supervised, very well done. And they come back with deliverables and samples of their work.
We also have a program called the “Ambassadors,” and they go to the home campus in Evanston and get to know people there, and to represent us and learn more about what’s going on there. And we have something called the Global Media Experience. Students usually go to Dubai and New York and look at media cities and go out and try to see what’s happening in some of the new media hubs, and what change is going on. And then others go on to service learning trips to developing countries. It’s a wide range. This summer we have students in Ferguson, Missouri, doing a project, looking at the Ferguson incident as a [catalyst for] larger questions of race in America. We do things like that.
Tell me more about the Education City in Qatar.
Dennis: We are part of Education City along with six American Universities, and so our students, in fact, are admitted to five of those six. If they want to take a course in Biology, they might go to Cornell, a political science course perhaps at Georgetown, and so on. And so it’s kind of an educational common market. Last year was the first time our students started to apply to graduate schools. And I ask them, “Oh, where do you want to go?” They said, “Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, the leading schools of the world.” And I said, “Have you ever heard of ‘safety schools’ in the event that you don’t get in there?” They couldn’t seem to be very interested in that.
And they did get admitted to those schools … That’s just incredibly gratifying for all of us. Because you never know for sure until you’ve had that external validation. And that’s one way you get it for sure.
Is the tuition cost pretty high for students? Do they have any help? I know here, a lot of young people get student loans. How does it work there?
Dennis: Well, it’s a very high cost because the Qatar Foundation insists that the tuition be the same as it is on the home campus, which is just under $50,000 a year. A number of students are funded by the Qatar Foundation — the Qataris are all funded by the Qatar Foundation. Others are as well. There’s some companies that do some sponsorships. But that’s an area we need to work far more on. We need more support for the students. Particularly the students who are not citizens of the country, who come from South Asia or elsewhere, and they have a harder time getting support.
How does the program differ from the one in the Chicago area? I know they’re getting a degree that’s similar to the one on the home campus, but what other differences are there in the programs?
Dennis: Well, it’s pretty much the same. All of the basic courses required on the home campus are required here, in both the journalism and communication majors. What we have that’s different is we have a full year of a rigorous writing, an English composition kind of course — though it’s broader than that. They all take a course that’s called Media and Society, just to give them a perspective on the whole media ecosphere, and what’s out there, put their education in context. Everybody gets a course in Media Law and Ethics, and that’s a very rigorous one. We want to expose them to English common law, the Constitutional law, and even a bit of Sharia law, so they have an idea of what they’re facing.
And that’s one of the exciting things here too. The students have been very bold and very tough, I think, in covering stories that aren’t instantly popular here. They’ve covered stories of the whole issue of labor conditions, which are getting better but not what they ought to be, and a number of things that would not be perceived as all that welcome by some of the people in the country. And they’ve been able to do it, and I think with grace and finesse, and with evidence. It’s not just advocacy but I think serious journalism.
How does the Qatari government receive that? Are they OK with you doing those really deep kind of investigations?
Dennis: Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t think they welcome it although some of the members of the Royal Family who brought us here in the first place have always said they encourage that kind of thing in the country; it needs to be more transparent. But when you get out into the ministries and agencies, they aren’t as welcoming on this subject. So it’s a touch-and-go kind of thing. So sometimes — I wouldn’t say they always welcome it — but they will talk to students more and more than they used to. And the Qatari students, the local students, work with the other expats on a lot of these things, and getting to see officials and families and other folks who the normal student here might not have access to. And that’s been a very good thing.
We’ve had our brushes with security. We had students who a year ago were out filming at a mosque and the Al Jazeera complex at 12 o’clock at night, and not surprisingly, some security people came along and said, “What are you doing here?” And taking them down to the police station. And we have people who can get them out. But they were so polite, they didn’t want to bother our government relations office, they waited until 7 in the morning to get sprung. So they’re kind of learning how to do this.
It is kind of a sensitive issue to deal with. And so you’ve done these surveys that are really insightful, talking about Middle East media. What did you think about this last one? What were the big takeaways for you?
Dennis: The main one was, I think, there’s been some slippage in access and in the use of social media from the first one, 2013, and even last year, and I think, particularly in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where there’s been really tough governmental sanctions and people going to jail, there’s a lot more caution there, so we see more caution.
Still, the use of social media is enormous here, and people are all online, and I think a lot of Americans are surprised to hear that — that people are out tweeting and sending Instagram messages and Facebook, others. WhatsApp has become very popular now, much more in the way of messaging than email, for example. Messaging has outdistanced email. I think there’s that. People are more interested in their home media than they are international media — they’re still interested in international. The slippage has been interest in pan-Arab media or CNN, BBC, some of the others, and much more focused on what’s being produced in the individual countries.
You mentioned the students coming from a lot of different places. Are there cultural or religious issues you have to cope with? It’s a mix of students from different places, and any language issues? Is it all in English or different languages?
Dennis: We teach in English, although more and more of our faculty are competent in Arabic. And students will do some of their work — not their major projects — some of their documentaries, and some of their translations, in Arabic. But it’s mostly all in English, so that’s not really an issue for us.
The religious sensitivities are great. The Muslim religion here is quite conservative. It’s not quite as conservative as that in Saudi Arabia, but it’s, you know, quiet and careful. And so there is a kind of interaction that people have, and I think our students learn that, yes, we respect the local culture, but one should respect other cultures as well. And they have these conversations a lot. And occasionally there’s a blow-up on something, but then we get back to it and see what’s going on. It’s a country where drinking is illegal. Not something that college students would normally like to see, and there are a few other prohibitions in the country that one has to be careful of. But I think it’s gotten somewhat looser, and Education City has established itself as a very important place for the country. And I think there’s a tendency not to look the other way, but at least be sensitive to what we’re doing here and when we have dust-ups, we talk to the officials in the government and work them out. So far, so good.
Do you have any new initiatives or anything you’d like to expand? Obviously you’ve got a larger student body. But is there anything else you’d like to launch?
Dennis: Yes, we’d like to do an executive mid-career program. The students are getting great education, but there are a lot of people in local media who’ve had no training at all, or very, very little. And we want to do something to bring resources to them. I think also, we’ve been asked if we’d like to start a graduate program, and I think we could do that. But also, just being sensitive to what’s happening in the region. We’ve been doing these media and audience studies. We’re now, next year, going to launch one that’s really a portrait of all media industries in the region and see what they look like, whether there’s growth or not. So I think we’re doing a lot of thought leadership and engaging folks within the country, and I think that’s really, pretty much our mandate.
Mark Glaser is executive editor and publisher of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is an award-winning writer and accidental entrepreneur, who has taken MediaShift from a one-person blog to a growing media company with events such as Collab/Space workshops and weekend hackathons; a weekly podcast called “The Mediatwits”; and digital trainings, DigitalEd, in partnership with top journalism schools. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.