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'The Ultimate Enrichment'

'The Ultimate Enrichment'For one group of Saudi Arabian women, a first-of-its-kind program at The Fletcher School has opened the door to the diplomatic stage.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.05.08] For the past seven months, 16 women from Saudi Arabia have been participating in a Fletcher School program hailed as the first of its kind, an initiative designed to train Saudi Arabian women for employment in a field that has traditionally been off-limits to them: diplomacy.

In a graduation ceremony held July 31 on the roof of The Fletcher School Professor Andrew Hess, director of The Fletcher School's Program for Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization and head of the school's diplomatic training programs, acknowledged the students' trailblazing efforts.

"You all took some risks," Hess told the graduates of The Fletcher-Dar Al-Hekma International Relations Training Program. He likened their crash course in diplomacy to "running the Boston Marathon without having any previous experience in long distance running."

The Starting Line

The program began taking shape more than a year and a half ago, when the president of Jeddah-based Dar Al-Hekma College, Dr. Suhair H. Al Qurashi, contacted Fletcher.

Founded in 1999 as the first private college for women in Saudi Arabia, Dar Al-Hekma teaches nearly all of its courses in English. To complement an already pioneering learning environment, Al Qurashi was looking for an opportunity to establish a diplomatic training program for her female students, even though Saudi Arabian women are not traditionally employed by the foreign ministry.

"We know that [Fletcher] is the best in the field and the oldest, and they had accumulated the knowledge we needed," said Al Qurashi.

After much discussion and a visit to Saudi Arabia by Hess and Fletcher Ph.D. student Leigh Nolan, the logistics of the collaboration were worked out. But it was not without its challenges.

"The cultural and historical differences were so big between the United States and Saudi Arabia that even those of us who are trying to overcome these differences don't realize how big they are until you run into something like this," said Hess.

Working together, Fletcher and Dar Al-Hekma resolved the complex issues and the program became a reality. From January through May of this year, six Fletcher Ph.D. candidates-Leigh Nolan, Dipali Mukhopdhyay, Cristiana Pasca, Georgia Kayser, Natasha Bajema, and Cornelia Schneider-traveled to Saudi Arabia to teach seven courses on topics including international security, NGOs, international law and environmental policy.

Nolan, who coordinated the program, said it was "a treasure and a treat to have such smart women for whom this [international relations] is really new" participating in the program.

 

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"I'm worried it will be the best teaching experience I'll ever have," she joked. Al Qurashi notes that some of those Fletcher students have even contacted her about opportunities to return to Saudi Arabia.

Then, the majority of the students came to The Fletcher School for two months of coursework. Among the Fletcher faculty teaching in the summer portion of the program were Professor of the Practice Eileen Babbitt, who taught negotiation and conflict resolution; Associate Professor Daniel Drezner, who taught the art of statecraft; Hess, who taught about Southwest Asia and globalization; and lecturer Ibrahim Warde, who taught about Islamic banking and finance. They also participated in workshops on media and foreign policy and writing.

'Change is underway'

In an address to her classmates, graduate Dina Madani said the program taught them how to "talk the talk and walk the walk" in an increasingly interconnected world. It's an understanding that they don't plan to keep to themselves.

"We want to take the road less traveled and pave it for others to follow. We want to transfer the knowledge that we have gained here back home to open opportunities for other people," Madani told the assembled crowd. "We want to be the catalysts to pace the development process of our country, going from a developing to a developed country."

Noura Mansouri, one of the first graduates of Dar Al Hekma and a current Ph.D. candidate at Queen Mary, University of London, says the global perspective gained at Fletcher has provided her and her classmates with "the ultimate enrichment" to prepare them for expanding opportunities in their home country to work in the foreign ministry.

"Change is underway," says Mansouri. "Things are happening slowly but surely."

Al Qurashi believes that her students, with the knowledge gained through this program and the rest of their schooling and experience, can make a splash on the big stage and overcome stereotypes about Saudi Arabian women.

"I think we need to plug them in the right areas to make the highest impact needed," says Al Qurashi, citing organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank. "With that, we will be able attract attention to the level of education they've been able to get."

Madani echoed these remarks in her comments at the ceremony: "We all had the determination and the will to complete this program. With that determination and that will, I have no doubt that each and every one of these graduates will hold a leading position."

According to Hess, who witnessed that determination first hand, the perception of Western women as representing freedom and Saudi women representing oppression will soon be outdated.

"That kind of binary division is not a good idea to have, because these people can blow it apart in a minute."

Profile and photos by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications 

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