Qatari students visit Pittsburgh campus

They sing Usher at karaoke, watch The Notebook on university movie nights, and find friends on Facebook.

Their weekend entertainment often includes belly dancing, their conversations are peppered with Arabic phrases, and they love food just as much as their Pittsburgh peers.

"God bless America," said Maha Obaidan, digging into a brownie sundae at the Walnut Grill in Shadyside.

Obaidan, a first-year computer science major at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, was one of five students from the Middle Eastern campus who came to Pittsburgh last week as part of a cross-campus exchange initiative between the Pittsburgh and Qatar campuses. The five are among the first class of students at CMU-Q, Carnegie Mellon's satellite campus that opened in Qatar in fall 2004.

Student Affairs planned the trip in conjunction with the Qatar campus's spring break. For most of the five who visited, it was their first trip to the United States.

"It's so quiet here," said Yasmine Abderlrahman, referring to the volume of activity on the Pittsburgh campus. According to Abderlrahman, a first-year business major, the Qatar campus echoes with music from students' laptops.

Clad in predominately Western attire and speaking fluent English, it was difficult to distinguish the group from other CMU students.

"Even though we come from different cultures, we're all typical college students. We all have the same goals of succeeding — we're all part of CMU," said Abderlrahman in the group's presentation last Wednesday.

The Qatari students presented a video and spoke about their college experience to students and faculty. During the presentation, the five spoke about the importance of the campus's inauguration two weeks ago.

During the Pittsburgh campus' spring break, 12 students and several staff members from the Pittsburgh campus traveled to Qatar to participate in an inauguration ceremony. The ceremony signified that the Qatar campus was open and operational, although students had begun classes there last year.

"For the first time, we felt so connected to our campus," said Abderlrahman. "Now we're not just a vision that CMU has."

There are 41 students enrolled in the CMU-Q class of 2008. Unlike its Pittsburgh peer, the Qatar campus is approximately 75 percent female. According to the five students, almost every student on the Qatar campus takes a robotics course, and most students live at home.

"Like CMU students, we work hard. But we also balance our social life," said Wesam Said, a first-year business major.

One of four American branch campuses in Qatar's Education City, CMU-Q offers undergraduate courses in business administration and computer science. Other campuses with branches include Virginia Commonwealth University, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Texas A&M University.

Speaking about their participation in joint activities with other colleges in Education City, the Qatari students found the lesser interaction between colleges on the Pittsburgh campus surprising.

"It seems every college has its own life here," Noora Al Ansasri, a first-year business major, referring to the individual colleges within the university.

What else do the students feel are differences between the campuses? "Qatar is so open to culture," said Obaidan. "Since there are no [ethnic] majorities or minorities, nobody can judge anyone else."

"I had such a great time there, and I feel so strongly about the importance of the Qatar campus' success that I have applied to TA there next fall," said Matt Laroche, a junior computer science major. Laroche was one of the students to visit Qatar for the inauguration. "The goal of Education City is very admirable, and it could be an aid in global peace and stability."

"Students from both campuses have commented on how quickly they felt a kinship with one another, which is wonderful," said Dean of Student Affairs Michael Murphy.

Prior to returning to Qatar, first-year business major and Qatar Student Body President Fahad Al-Jefairi wore a T-shirt that read: "What happens on spring break stays on spring break." But now, what happens in Pittsburgh doesn't have to stay in Pittsburgh. Student Affairs hopes to further strengthen the bond between both campuses through pen pal programs, future trips, and potential cross-campus registration and video conferencing.

"I expect there to be many opportunities for our students here and there to come back and forth," said Dean Murphy, "both for visits and for semesters of study."