The two MIT students stood in the austere surroundings of a 130-year-old high school in the historic Old City of Jerusalem, pitching a high-tech future that reached across cultural and national boundaries.
In the first gathering of its kind here Wednesday, Jan. 23, Ibrahim K. Kanan ’08 and Rameez A. Qudsi G urged more than 200 Palestinian students, segregated by gender in keeping with Muslim tradition, to dream big and apply to elite Western colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Not only will education transform their lives, they told the students, but their presence on campus will enrich the schools and their communities.
“We don’t see enough students like us on campuses,” Kanan, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering senior who was born in New Jersey to Palestinian parents, said as he and Qudsi guided the enthusiastic audience from 10 high schools through MIT’s admissions process in English and Arabic.
“You have the chance to take your culture to the leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “You have the chance to change the image of Palestine in America. You can help your country by going to those colleges, meeting the future leaders, and taking from the resources they have in the United States. Then you can come back here and help our people.”
The two are among seven members of MIT’s Arab Students’ Organization on a weeklong trip through eight Middle Eastern countries in a hunt for untapped potential.
The students believe it is the only organized project of its kind, although MIT encourages foreign alumni to introduce high school students back home to the possibility of studying in the United States.
For this trip, students raised most of the money themselves, and MIT is covering the balance and helping to provide contacts and other support.
MIT says that over the past four years, it has accepted, on average, about 10 undergraduate students a year from Arab countries, and that students from those counties account for about 10 percent of MIT’s international undergraduate population. The school does not have precise figures for the number of Arab-Americans in the domestic student population.
MIT officials applaud the Arab students’ Middle East initiative.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Stuart Schmill ’86, interim director of admissions, who said his office had helped the students prepare for the trip and connected them with MIT alumni in several countries. “There’s a lot of talent across that region we’d like to develop.”
In little over a week, Kanan and Qudsi visited Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as East Jerusalem. In their final stop Saturday, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, they were scheduled to meet local students and hold a video conference with students in the Gaza Strip.
Four more colleagues visited Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. A third MIT student did not come to Jerusalem because she is a Syrian national who would probably have been barred from entry by the Israelis. Kanan and Qudsi were detained for much of Tuesday, Jan. 22 by Israeli security officials as they crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to the West Bank.
“It was a bit frustrating,” Kanan said, though they anticipated delays because they had traveled to Syria and Lebanon.
Kanan and Qudsi said their motivation in starting the traveling program is their desire to see more students from the Middle East in top American universities as relations between the West and much of the Arab world have suffered.
“I think it’s a two-way street,” said Qudsi, a 23-year-old graduate student in health sciences and technology who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in New York. “I want people in the U.S. to get exposed to people who live in the Middle East and then learn about the Middle East through them.”
In Jerusalem, Kanan and Qudsi were hosted by Amal Alayan ’93, an MIT alumna and venture capital pioneer in the Arab world. She volunteers as an educational counselor to interview potential applicants and said she hoped the road show would broaden the appeal of MIT and other top U.S. colleges for Arab students from conservative, traditional homes.