Covenanter Plays Key Role in Educating Arab Students

Post a Comment » Written on March 5th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

DOHA, QATAR (March 5, 2008) – Charles (Chuck) E. Thorpe has come a long way from being a missionary kid and high school teacher in the Congo to being a pioneer of American higher education in this wealthy Arab nation.

The New York Times recently featured him as part of a two-installment series about the globalization of American universities that are establishing campuses around the world, including throughout the Persian Gulf.

Thorpe, the son of Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Roger and Eileen Thorpe and a member of Stoneridge Covenant Church in Allison Park, Pennsylvania, is the dean of the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) campus here and has led development of the school from its inception. The university offers degrees in business and computer science that are equivalent to any earned in the United States.

Botball photoCMU is one of five major universities in recent years to establish campuses in Education City, an area set aside by the Qatar government for schools to bring American higher education to the nation. Other universities with campuses in Education City are Virginia Commonwealth University, Cornell University in New York, and Texas A & M. Northwestern University will soon establish a school of journalism.

Making higher education readily available is important to the future of Qatar and the United States, Thorpe says. “Qatar is a bridge country at a very important time, and anything we can do to bring a little more understanding between the Arab world and the U.S. is vitally important,” he explains.

So far, the work appears to be paying off. “We have opened a flow of people and ideas between Doha and Pittsburgh,” Thorpe notes. Qatar regularly hosts visits from westerners such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy, Kofi Annan, and the president of Turkey.

Formerly the director of the CMU Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, Thorpe says he also has been in for quite an education. “I have learned a tremendous amount about all kinds of things in the university that I had never encountered before, from how to do undergraduate admissions in a situation where the parents don’t speak English, to setting up a robotics lab in a country with no Radio Shacks.”

To read more about the robotics initiative and a most unusual competition called “botball,” see Pineapples and Plastic – This is Science? The accompanying photo shows Thorpe (second from left) with some of the botball participants.

Re-establishing a priority around advanced education is fitting for a region of the world that once was a leader in science. “The Arab world was famous for its science a thousand years ago,” Thorpe points out. “They were advancing chemistry and astronomy and medicine and mathematics while Europe was living through the dark ages. Then they lost their momentum.”

That nation’s economic future hinges on higher learning, Thorpe believes, noting that the country’s history of supplying oil is far more recent – dating back to the mid 1950s. It has become wealthy only in the last 15 years as it developed natural gas production.

“The Qatari leadership decided that they wanted to invest their income in health care and education, to bring their people into the knowledge-based economy of the future,” Thorpe says. “It’s a wise decision. They have vast reserves of natural gas, but not unlimited.”

Thorpe likens the situation to Pittsburgh 100 years ago, when the city was booming based largely on the steel industry and attracting immigrants from all over the world. “Andrew Carnegie, who was the richest man in the world, decided to invest in setting up a school for the steelworkers’ sons and coal miners’ daughters,” he says. “That school became Carnegie Mellon University and is one of the anchors of Pittsburgh today, long after the steel industry has gone. The Emir of Qatar wants us to have the same effect in his country.”

Bringing American higher education to the Middle East has presented its challenges. “The biggest challenge we face is finding well-prepared students,” Thorpe says. “Qatar is reforming education at all levels at the same time. In K-12, they are moving from all-Arabic instruction to a mix of Arabic and English, they are updating their curriculum, and they are moving to a charter school system. At the same time, they are bringing in universities like Carnegie Mellon with rigorous undergraduate programs, and they are working with us to start postgraduate education and research programs.”

Because the degree is equivalent to one earned in the United States, students must acquire the same skills required to graduate from Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Pittsburgh. “So we look for smart, hard-working high school students, and then we work hard with them in a variety of ways to prepare them for the challenge of a Carnegie Mellon education,” Thorpe says. “We run summer camps for high school students, and computer programming competitions. We participate in a 13th grade program for students to get intensive math and English instruction, and we provide extra tutoring to help our freshmen get used to the fast pace of their college experience.”

Thorpe is proud of how well the students have responded. “Of our first entering class of 41, we expect to have 37 walk through graduation this spring at the end of their fourth year,” he says.

Thorpe’s family has had to make its own adjustments, but they have made new friends and attend a local church. “We’ve learned to eat new foods – lots of good Arabian dishes – but we’re also able to find most things we would eat in the U.S.”

He has been able to watch Qatar residents be introduced to some of the sweetest pleasures America has to offer. “They just opened a Krispy Kreme, and the line was over a kilometer long the first day.”

Christianity is openly practiced, but is a small minority in the Muslim nation. “My Muslim friends are very concerned for my eternal salvation, and feel sorry for me not being one of them.”

Thorpe says that whatever adjustments his family has had to make, they don’t compare to those made by his parents, who first traveled to Congo more than 40 years ago.

“They had to spend a year in language study – we have been asked to work in English,” he explains, ticking off the contrasts. “They had to pack four years worth of food and clothing – we can go to one of several malls, or to the fresh fruit and vegetable store. They were gone from the U.S. for four years at a time – I’m back on business trips several times a year. They had to type letters on aerograms, which might take a month to get to family – we send email or pick up the Internet phone.”

No doubt about it, he says. “We’re living a much easier life than they had!”

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