In Focus: As Northwestern considers another decade in Qatar, some NU-Q students say campus falls short of promises

In Focus: As Northwestern considers another decade in Qatar, some NU-Q students say campus falls short of promises

Muhammad, a junior at Northwestern University in Qatar, didn’t expect to be eating just one or two meals a day in college.

He dreamed of attending NU-Q — Northwestern’s campus in Doha — when he was in high school and said he was “happy and proud” to be accepted. But juggling a campus job, student loans and shifting financial aid policies has worn on him.

Since his parents couldn’t pay for his college education, Muhammad initially felt encouraged by NU-Q’s promise to meet all demonstrated financial need. But more than three years later, he struggles to make ends meet on his own.

NU-Q students pay the same tuition as their Evanston counterparts and receive diplomas with “Northwestern” emblazoned across the top. But, for some NU-Q students, the allure of attending NU’s Doha campus can seem more illusion than reality.

“We came to Qatar with the idea that we will be part of Northwestern … they usually say it’s our home in Doha,” said Muhammad, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of retaliation from NU-Q. “But then we realize that (it) is no such thing like a home. It’s just you and only you in Qatar.”

Since 2008, NU has offered a journalism and communication education to hundreds of students in Education City — a complex in Doha that arose from a Qatari government effort to bolster higher education in the Gulf state that now houses campuses for six U.S.-based universities.

NU-Q is fully funded by the Qatar Foundation, the state-led organization that launched Education City in 1997 and provides the majority of funding for campuses that operate there. Since NU-Q’s founding, NU’s main campus has largely maintained a hands-off approach to its only campus abroad, reaping modest benefits while assuming little financial risk.

Now, with NU’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2027-28 academic year, NU-Q’s future hinges on ongoing negotiations between University administrators and QF officials.

The upcoming contract decision underscores the disconnect between NU’s two undergraduate campuses 7,000 miles apart — and the complexities of NU lending its name to a school for which it doesn’t foot the bill.

The Daily sent a detailed list of questions to NU on topics ranging from the current negotiations to the nature of its relationship with QF. The University declined to answer the questions prior to the publication of this investigation.

“Northwestern has partnerships with educational institutions in more than three dozen countries around the world, including two universities in Israel,” University spokesperson Hilary Hurd Anyaso told The Daily in a single statement. “We maintain a campus in Doha, Qatar, that educates students from more than 50 nationalities to positively impact the region.”

The Qatar Foundation and NU-Q also did not respond to questions sent by The Daily prior to publication.

At NU-Q, the past few years have been marked by insufficient student wages, a lack of institutional support, and rapid shifts in admissions and financial aid policies, several students told The Daily.

“Sometimes, prospective students tell me they would like to be part of the Wildcat community in Qatar,” Muhammad said. “But I was thinking, ‘should I tell them the truth?’ … What’s advertised is not real.”

‘We don’t have money to eat’

When Muhammad was admitted to NU-Q in December 2020 under the school’s former need-blind admissions policy, he expected that all of his costs would be covered.

“Financial aid usually covers room and board in American institutions, so I was expecting the same,” Muhammad said. “But in our situation, NU-Q isn’t giving us coverage for our meals.”

Unlike NU’s Evanston campus, which has five dining halls, NU-Q has none. Instead, as a freshman, Muhammad received a card, loaded with a one-time stipend of 1,000 QAR — or $274 —  that he could use at one of the cafes on campus.

The class of 2027 did not receive a dining card when they arrived on campus in the fall.

Once Muhammad’s dining stipend ran out, he had to pay for his own groceries or eat out. The one-time stipend often doesn’t last beyond the first semester of college. And in Doha — the capital of the 20th most expensive country in the world — student wages often prove insufficient to cover the cost of meals.

Muhammad said he usually eats a piece of fruit for breakfast from NU-Q’s “Grab n Go” fridge before class each day. A new addition starting this past fall, the fridge is open before 2:30 p.m. on class days. He said the limited hours present an inconvenience, considering it’s the only consistent option for free food on campus.

In response to these struggles, students face an administration that, to some, appears unreceptive to student concerns.

To address students’ difficulties affording food, NU-Q gave a slideshow presentation in Spring 2023 for students called “Budgeting 101.” The slideshow offered examples of weeklong plans for eating three meals a day on a budget, according to photos obtained by The Daily.

In one slide, instant noodles with a cupcake and a side salad was the suggested lunch. The breakfast of choice was oatmeal and a banana. Another slide, featuring a large yellow smiley face, offered “Helpful Tips,” such as “find cheaper alternatives” and “bulk (buy) during promotions rather than one-time purchases.”

Muhammad said some faculty seem unaware of the struggles he and other international students on financial aid face.

“I wish professors would understand our situation because sometimes it seems like they’re from another planet,” he said. “Some of them were really surprised when students were sharing with them that, ‘Oh, actually, we don’t have money to eat.’”

Similar to NU’s Evanston campus, part-time, on-campus jobs are available for NU-Q students who need to supplement food and transportation costs. But students cannot work more than 20 hours per week in these jobs under NU-Q’s policy.

Even though NU-Q raised the minimum hourly wage from 27 QAR to 30 QAR — or about $7.41 to $8.24 — in December 2021, students say those 20 hours still weren’t enough to help them make ends meet.

In January, NU-Q raised the minimum hourly wage again to 45 QAR — or $12.36 — but Muhammad said he still has to skip meals to remain financially afloat.

NU-Q also capped work-study wages at $2,000 per semester in 2023, subsequently raising it to $4,000 in January.

NU-Q junior Maria Lisboa-Ward started a part-time job as soon as she arrived on campus her freshman year but found it still wasn’t enough to cover her costs. 

As an international student paying her own way through school, Lisboa-Ward said she often hit the maximum number of hours she was allowed to work each week.

“I needed to put all the hours in every week because otherwise, I’m not buying food,” she said of the initial cap. “That was really limiting, because depending on a student job for your basic needs is stressful.”

NU-Q tightens financial aid, admissions policies

In the 2022-23 academic year, NU-Q switched from need-blind to need-aware admissions, meaning the amount of financial aid an applicant needs would now factor into whether they were admitted.

Before 2023, NU-Q admissions were need-blind for all first-year, transfer, domestic and international students, according to its website. This policy is different from NU’s Evanston campus, where admissions are only need-blind for applicants from the U.S.

“We understand that a university education also involves a significant financial decision for many students and their families,” the webpage read in October 2022. “As such we are committed to ensuring that this rigorous process is both accessible and affordable.”

Now, the page states that NU-Q “cannot assume responsibility for economic changes such as currency fluctuation, increases in cost of living, or loss of parental employment” or “replace lost support a student may have expected to receive.”

Abdelrahman Abouzid, an NU-Q graduate who now works at the Qatar Support Office in Evanston, said he didn’t know the details of the decision to go need-aware but said it makes sense that the campus would be tightening its expenditures.

“I can totally see how Northwestern Qatar (just) realized it wasn’t sustainable anymore,” Abouzid said. “Because the aid packages that were provided were pretty significant.”

Like the rest of its finances, financial aid at NU-Q is intertwined with QF. Students with financial need don’t receive aid through the University. Instead, they apply for interest-free loans from QF, which they can pay back either through installments or “service” in Qatar for a designated period of time.

Under the service plan, QF forgives NU-Q students’ loans if they work or study at an approved institution in Qatar for up to six years, including media companies like Al Jazeera and an array of Qatari government ministries. The repayment plan consists of monthly payments amounting to no more than 15% of the student’s monthly salary.

Prior to coming to NU-Q, Lisboa-Ward said the admissions team told her she could choose from about 300 pre-approved institutions to work at after graduation to pay off her loan. An admissions brochure from the 2019-20 school year made the same promise.

A 2023 list of approved companies obtained by The Daily, however, shows just 96 options for students to work at.

Contracts that outline the terms of students’ loans from QF also give the organization leeway to terminate students’ aid.

A copy of a 2021 loan contract obtained by The Daily reads that QF has “absolute discretion” to immediately suspend or terminate a student’s financial aid agreement and demand repayment of all amounts owed.

The contract outlines 11 reasons why QF may be permitted to do this, including if the student or their guarantor has “willfully suppressed” any fact that QF finds to be “material” or if a situation arises which, “in the opinion of QF,” will affect the student’s ability to repay their loan.

In contrast, students at NU’s main campus can qualify for various loans from the federal government, private lenders and the University itself.

Until last year, if a QF loan was not sufficient to cover a student’s demonstrated need, NU-Q would use its own budget — also made up of QF funds — to make up the difference. But starting with the class of 2027, NU-Q ended this policy. It will still make up the difference for students graduating before 2027.

Starting with the class of 2027, students must pay the difference themselves, seek other loans and scholarships outside of NU-Q, or appeal for a higher loan from QF. The only other option for a full subsidy of their tuition is “a limited number of highly competitive” merit scholarships, according to the financial aid website.

The University did not comment on why it made the switch to need-aware admissions and changed its financial aid policy.

Students at Texas A&M University at Qatar, Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar and Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar are offered the same QF loan system as their NU-Q counterparts.

But students at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Georgetown University in Qatar have access to need-based grants that don’t require any repayment.

Muhammad describes Georgetown students as living an “ideal life.” Without loans to pay off, he said he would be able to focus on his studies. But at NU-Q, that is not the reality.

“In our case, it’s really difficult because you have to maintain your GPA,” Muhammad said. “If you don’t have a good GPA, then even the loan (could) be canceled.”

‘They were going to pay for it’

When then-University President Henry Bienen first heard QF’s offer to fund a journalism and communications campus in Doha, the deal sounded too good to refuse. 

The University would lend its name brand, curriculum, degrees and some professors to the Doha campus, but it wouldn’t use any of its own funds to do so. QF would also give NU undisclosed gifts, in addition to funding the campus, according to a 2007 article in The Daily.

On top of the financial benefits, the deal also offered an opportunity for NU to burnish its global brand, eventually in the form of a towering stone building with a three-story LED screen donning the name “Northwestern University in Qatar.”

“I really wanted to plant the Northwestern flag abroad, and I thought that this was a beginning,” Bienen told The Daily in May. “Particularly, since they were going to pay for it.”

Since NU-Q’s 2008 opening, NU has held that its relationship with QF is strictly financial. NU admits students, selects its faculty and designs the curriculum — and QF pays for it.

University spokespeople declined to comment on NU’s role in operating NU-Q or what the relationship between the two universities might look like in the future.

“The relationship between Qatar Foundation and Northwestern is more of a donor relationship,” said Abouzid, the Qatar Support Office staffer. “It doesn’t get involved in policies, get involved in the curriculum (or) what’s being taught or discussed in the classrooms.”

Still, NU is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Qatari money among Education City schools. The University has received more than $500 million in contracts from Qatar since its first agreement in 2007 — the third most among U.S. universities in Education City, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

“There’s no negatives for the University financially,” Bienen told The Daily in 2007 of the contract with QF. “There are only positives financially.”

NU’s contract with QF, first approved in 2007 and renewed in 2016, is not publicly available. The Daily obtained copies of VCU and Texas A&M’s contracts with QF for their Education City campuses through public records requests.

VCU and Texas A&M’s contracts require QF to pay the U.S. universities an annual “management fee.” Through the Texas A&M contract, QF gives the U.S. campus $7 million annually, with an additional $3 million available if the Doha campus meets certain thresholds for hiring long-term faculty members, enrolling Qatari students and collaborating with universities and institutions in Qatar.

According to Medill Prof. Craig LaMay, the former director of NU-Q’s journalism program who served as the campus’ acting dean in 2020, QF has a similar deal with NU — and it’s “no secret.”

“For years, I’ve heard administrators at both campuses talk pretty openly about it, and even the amount, which is about $6 million annually,” he said.

In addition, NU has received about $16 million in gifts from Qatari entities since 2009 — more than any other foreign country. Gifts can include endowed professorships, donations to specific NU schools, scholarship funding for undergraduate students or any other funding that doesn’t require NU to give anything specific in return.

This figure positions NU as the third-largest beneficiary of Qatari gifts since 2001 among U.S. universities, behind only Georgetown and Texas A&M.

QF also provides research funding to NU faculty who partner with a Qatari institution. QF awarded 17 grants to NU between 2012 and 2018, ranging from $650,000 to $5 million.

The VCU and Texas A&M contracts stipulate certain circumstances where QF’s relationship with the U.S. university can go beyond just finances. The contracts allow QF to have a voice in curriculum changes if they pose “a significant budgetary or academic impact” while not infringing on “the academic freedom of faculty regarding curricular decisions.”

LaMay said QF stays true to its promise of not intervening in classroom curriculum. 

But he recalled one incident during his tenure as dean when he had to cancel a speaking event featuring a prominent Lebanese band whose lead singer is openly gay. 

“The pressure to cancel came from somewhere in the government, not from QF,” LaMay said. “I think QF was as disappointed as we were.”

While NU cited safety concerns as the reason for the cancellation, QF said the event was canceled because it conflicted with the organization’s mission and Qatari customs.

‘There’s no support’

The undergraduate tuition is the same in both Evanston and Doha — $64,887 for the 2023-24 academic year — and NU-Q students receive the same degrees they would get after four years of studying journalism or communications on the shores of Lake Michigan.

NU-Q students often hear that they are Wildcats just like their Evanston counterparts. But for many students, the experience hasn’t lived up to that promise.

The entirety of NU-Q is housed in one building, which many students say lacks sufficient common spaces or other features that might generate a community feel. 

Students also say they lack some concrete resources and support from the administration. Many offices that exist on NU’s Evanston campus are nonexistent at NU-Q. But NU-Q refers students to Evanston offices in certain cases.

Still, the University’s support services for students can feel distant or inaccessible in Doha. This makes it all the more challenging to navigate the complexities of NU-Q, QF and NU’s main campus and the interplay between them.

For example, NU’s ombudsperson — a confidential third party who can act as a mediator, a liaison to the University or a listening ear — occasionally visits the Doha campus but does not have a regular presence there, like many other University resources.

Some students told The Daily that NU’s ombudsperson visits NU-Q once a year, but University spokespeople declined to confirm this fact.

Lisboa-Ward said she struggled to navigate between NU-Q and QF to renegotiate her financial aid contract after she got married the summer before her junior year.

When she got engaged, Lisboa-Ward informed the QF financial aid office and NU-Q’s human resources department and was told she didn’t need to do anything to keep her financial aid package, she said. Then, when she informed the Office of Business and Finance at NU-Q that she was married, her NU-Q financial aid was immediately revoked.

True to its word, QF agreed to keep her loan contract the same for the upcoming academic year. NU-Q, however, refused to make up the difference between the loan and her estimated financial aid until she submitted an appeal.

After her aid was canceled at the end of August, Lisboa-Ward was given until October to resubmit her financial aid application in its entirety, with her husband as her new guarantor.

She said advocating for herself in discussions with the Financial Aid Office got her “nowhere.”

“There’s no support, not at all,” she said. “It’s mostly the business and finance department dealing with you.”

Lisboa-Ward, an international student from Brazil, added that NU-Q does not provide a special orientation for international students — who make up more than 40% of the student body — besides a day trip through downtown Doha.

In contrast, NU’s Evanston campus offers “International Wildcat Welcome,” a weeklong program for undergraduates traveling to NU from outside the U.S.

Lisboa-Ward said she has experienced a lack of “empathy” from NU-Q toward international students who are struggling to adjust to a new country while supporting themselves financially.

“Students come to Qatar as 18-year-olds who, often, have not left their country, who don’t have a job secured yet (and) who don’t know how they’re gonna pay the bills,” Lisboa-Ward said. “They’re supposed to figure it out on their own, in a different country with no money, no parents and a different language.”

The mental health resources at NU-Q are also lacking when compared to NU in Evanston, according to some students. NU-Q’s Office of Counseling and Wellness is staffed by one person, as of mid-May, who is expected to serve the mental health needs of approximately 330 students.

In Evanston, Counseling and Psychological Services has at least 38 people on staff, according to its website, and faces calls for reduced wait times for appointments and more staff members who are trained to support students who represent a range of identities.

Students have previously called attention to discrepancies in mental health services between NU’s two undergraduate campuses.

Evanston students who spend a semester in Doha have also noticed the difference in support between the two campuses. 

Maria Ximena Aragon (Medill ’23) — a former Daily staffer — was eager to participate in Medill’s “Semester in Qatar” program when she first heard about it her freshman year. But, by the time she finished the program as a senior in Fall 2022, she felt it was very different from what she expected.

Aragon was drawn to the exchange program when she heard that it came with an opportunity to travel outside the country and explore other countries in the Middle East. But by the time she got to NU-Q, that program had been canceled.

In Doha, Aragon said she struggled to find a point of contact for herself and other exchange students. When she approached the Student Life Office for support, she was told to talk to Evanston staff, none of whom “had the time” to meet with her.

In Evanston, Aragon said she often relied on Student Enrichment Services — a program dedicated to supporting first-generation, lower-income and undocumented students — for community and support.

As an exchange student, she was also not allowed to have a student job, forcing her to find other ways to cover all the necessary expenses — including meals. And since at the start of the semester, Aragon was staying in a freshman dorm, which was not equipped with kitchens, she said she was expected to eat out every day. Given high prices in Doha, this was untenable, she added.

“As a first-generation, low-income student, something I relied on is Northwestern’s help and its aid, and I didn’t feel like I had that support when I was out there,” Aragon said.

Looking ahead

Now, NU administrators and QF leaders are negotiating the terms that could bring students to the Doha campus past the 2027-28 academic year. NU-Q admitted its class of 2028 in the spring — the last class set to graduate before the current contract expires.

University President Michael Schill postponed an early May trip to Doha for NU-Q’s graduation. He planned to meet with NU-Q Dean Marwan Kraidy and QF leadership to continue discussing the contract, he told The Daily in March.

NU didn’t announce its most recent contract renewal — for a contract that expired in the 2017-18 academic year — until February 2016.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M abruptly announced in February it was closing its Qatar campus by 2028 because of “heightened instability in the Middle East,” according to a news release, raising questions about the longevity of U.S. universities in Education City.

University spokespeople declined to comment on the status of contract negotiations with QF.

As the national anthems of both the U.S. and Qatar played at NU-Q’s graduation on May 6, LaMay stood next to Kraidy holding a ceremonial mace inscribed with “Northwestern in Qatar” in Arabic. After seven years at NU-Q, he is returning to Evanston in the fall to teach at Medill.

“NU-Q has excellent journalism faculty and some truly exceptional students from all over the world, some of the best I’ve ever had at Northwestern,” LaMay told The Daily.

While he’s not directly involved in the upcoming negotiations, his biggest concern for NU-Q’s future isn’t finances. Rather, he says the University should rededicate itself to an initial commitment of fostering press freedom in Qatar, cautioning against what he describes as a shift away from journalistic practice and toward the academic study of media.

“One obvious question would be, what was the mission when (NU-Q) opened in 2008, and how does the University measure success now?” LaMay said. “With respect to journalism, the answer is mixed.”

Muhammad said he was proud of the outgoing seniors, particularly international students, for finding success despite difficulties they faced as students.

But he often thinks about the name that will be at the top of his degree when he walks across the stage a year from now.

“Aren’t we a part of globally ranked Northwestern University?” Muhammad said. “That’s the question that we still can’t answer.”

Lisboa-Ward said instability from the administration is par for the course at NU-Q and students suffer because of it. She added that students live in a “culture of fear” over what could change at any moment.

But, she also acknowledged the benefits of attending NU, albeit across the globe from Evanston.

“This level of education is being provided to students who otherwise may not have another option. It often is also that the well-being of these students is often quite disregarded,” Lisboa-Ward said. “This is amazing as a project, but it needs to really work.”

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