In Conversation with the President of Al Akhawayn University
Following the release of the foundation’s report on college and career readiness of Arab youth, this three-part series of Q&As highlights three types of institutions implementing programs that better prepare youth for the transition to university and work.
Although university is a new, and at times difficult, experience for all students, it can be an especially hard transition for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A recent study we completed at the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education on the college and career readiness of Arab youth also found that throughout their journey from high school to work, disadvantaged students face greater barriers than average students. The study highlighted that disadvantaged students were 22% more likely to have limited access to the internet, 8% less likely to have met with an academic counselor in high school and 7% more likely to make university enrollment decisions based on finances than average students.
Yet, these situations are not irreversible. If provided with enough support from their educational institutions, disadvantaged students can thrive in university and beyond. In the Arab world, a few universities have introduced tailored programs to ensure that their students, and more specifically students from disadvantaged backgrounds, thrive throughout their education.
One such institution is Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane (AUI) in Morocco, which introduced a Pre-Matriculation Program (PmP) this summer to help the first cohort of Al Ghurair STEM scholars succeed at university. They did so after recognizing that their general adjustment program that all students go through, the First-Year Experience (FYE), was not addressing the specific needs of the scholars. We recently spoke with Dr. Driss Ouaouicha, the President of AUI, to learn more about their experience and what they have learned from it so far.
- What is the “First-Year Experience” program?
The transition from high school to college can be daunting to any student. Most of our students have an additional challenge, which is moving from a Moroccan or French education system to a North American one. The First-Year Experience (FYE) program was introduced in 2017 to assist students in making a successful transition to college life.
The FYE program has four main components including an Orientation Week, seminars, athletics activities and housing activities. So, the first step is to house all first and second semester students in the same residential buildings with the purpose of building a First Year Community, a cohort! It is followed by a series of seminars to introduce the students to all of AUI’s support services, policies, and to develop their soft skills. It also includes athletic and housing activities to keep students engaged in extracurricular and cultural activities within the community. All first-year students are also assigned a CRLA-certified peer to assist them in various matters relating to college transition, be they academic or personal.
- One year after its launch, what are the main lessons that you have learnt from this program and how do you measure its impact?
At the end of the first year of the FYE program, we organized a series of focus groups to assess students’ satisfaction with the program, and to compile their suggestions on how to improve it. We also used the student retention rate to assess the impact of the FYE program. So far data has shown an increase of 2% in retention rates since the FYE program was introduced. Student performance also showed improvement since last year. Data showed that there is a 4% increase in students whose academic results were ranked as “Good” and a 2% decrease in those that received an “Unsatisfactory” grade.
Other metrics can be used of course to evaluate the impact, but they remain either long term metrics (e.g. graduation rate) or the data needs further investigation since many variables are at play (e.g. percentage of students enrolled that fall under probation, etc.).
- What challenges have you observed students from more disadvantaged backgrounds face over and above those of their peers at university?’
Unlike public universities in Morocco, AUI is tuition-based and is perceived to be a university that largely serves Moroccan students from high socio-economic backgrounds. However, we have always made efforts to provide need-based financial support. The percentage of first year students benefiting from need-based financial aid has risen from 4% to 13% in the past 3 years. We have not yet systematically assessed the challenges for disadvantaged students, but some have had additional issues adapting to the university life at AUI. That is why we decided to pilot the Pre-matriculation Program for the Al Ghurair STEM scholars earlier this year.
- What is the Pre-matriculation Program (PmP) and what goals do you hope to achieve with it?
The AUI PmP is a five to six weeks intensive program that was specifically designed for the Al Ghurair STEM scholars. Considering that these students come from socioeconomically challenged backgrounds, and that they have mostly been studying in public schools, we expected that their transition to a North American education model would be a challenge, both in terms of language and adjustment to a new system and environment.
The PmP includes a super-intensive (5 hours/day) customized English program, based on a specially designed institutional TOEFL exam. The program also includes additional activities to prepare the students for the culture of AUI, such as meetings with the School Deans, counselors and AGFE coordinators at AUI, as well as field trips and social activities championed by dedicated faculty who have experience working with students from underserved populations and minorities.
From its very first edition, and based on student surveys, the PmP program helped to ease the transition for students to the AUI campus life and our educational system. It was also an opportunity to identify, before the start of the academic year, grantees who needed more support or those who did not feel comfortable with AUI’s demanding environment and education system and who preferred to explore alternative higher education opportunities.
After this successful experience, we are convinced that this program was very beneficial to the Al Ghurair STEM scholars and we have decided to officially implement it for all upcoming cohorts. We are also examining the possibility of offering parts of it to other students who have specific needs.
- How do you expect the more socio-economically diverse student population at Al Akhawayn to impact students’ educational and social experiences on your campus?
Our philosophy at AUI has always considered tolerance, diversity and openness as essential pillars that help us fulfil our mission of preparing successful citizens of the world. One of the areas where AUI has always been outstanding is a fair gender representation, particularly in the field of engineering. Contrary to the global norm, more than 50% of AUI’s engineering students are women. They also make up over 66% of our high performing students.
Regarding students from socioeconomically challenged populations, they have also always been part of our student community, but they have so far been a minority that does not truly reflect their representation in Morocco as a whole. Today, thanks to the Al Ghurair STEM Scholars Program, we are attracting more disadvantaged students.
We expect those students to benefit from their exposure to other social and economic pools, and to learn how to adapt to such environments. Reciprocally, their presence among the AUI student pool is already enriching the campus with new perspectives and experiences.
6- What advice would you offer to other universities that are looking to serve a more diverse student population?
A key approach to serving a diverse population is to cultivate excellence and inclusion, and to celebrate achievement. Use the presence of diversity to encourage interaction and dialogue, including intercultural and interfaith dialogue. Provide a rich set of extracurricular activities to complement the academics, allowing students from different backgrounds to work together on joint projects of common interest, whether in athletics, academic competitions, or field trips. Student clubs are also a good way to open students’ eyes to the range of possibilities they can pursue, especially for disadvantaged students who may have not previously been exposed to such opportunities. Finally, whenever possible, collect feedback from the experience of diversity to further enhance the values of the institution and fulfill its broader mission.