Forging Connections Across Cultures

75 members of the UIF community + an expanding innovation destination + beautiful sand and sun for miles = Eastern Hemisphere Meetup in the United Arab Emirates. Check out the materials and other resources from the event.

Picture it: a place where you can go sand dune surfing, design a new innovation strategy for your school, learn to dance bachata, meet people from all around the world, and visit a tech giant. We did all of this and more during our visit to the United Arab Emirates for the Eastern Hemisphere Meetup.

Seventy-five Fellows and faculty joined the UIF team for the Meetup, which took place April 25-28, 2019, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This Meetup is one of two options that Fellows could select from this year to expand on their training as change agents in higher education; the other, the Silicon Valley Meetup, took place in March.

The UIF team created the Eastern Hemisphere Meetup to allow participants in that region of the world to more easily access a UIF event, and to provide an exciting destination and culture for our Fellows to experience. An important benefit of holding a Meetup in the UAE was that Fellows were able to experience an innovation culture outside of Silicon Valley. We mixed learning experiences together with opportunities to experience this culture, taking the Fellows to many different locations for sessions as well as unique UAE destinations like the Dubai Mall and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

“This experience allowed me to reframe my perspective and experience entrepreneurial ecosystems through a global lens,” said Zahrah Abdulrauf from University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It helped me envision the way that the human-centered design toolkit I gained through UIF could help me to fit into this picture on a broader, global scale.”

We kicked off four days of learning with a desert adventure in Dubai that had us all whooping and screaming (in a fun way, mostly!). We were driven out to the desert and piled in SUVs that whipped around and sand-surfed their way over and down impossibly steep dunes. At the end of the twisty road was an oasis where we had dinner, took photos on the dunes, met some friendly camels and falcons, and got to know one another better.

In our group, we had people from the United States, India, the United Arab Emirates and Bulgaria. For many participants, this was their first trip outside their home countries. Some students came a long way to make new friends from nearby schools (several Fellows attend schools in New York) while others made fast friends with people who had very different backgrounds from their own. This desert bonding experience helped us forge connections that lasted throughout the Meetup (and beyond).

“From the first day, I felt like I belonged here, as we weren’t strangers surrounding each other but close friends who hadn’t met yet,” said Reem Sobeih from Ajman University.

Throughout the event, another way that participants made new connections was through the Fabs (the name is short for “Fabulous”). These eight experienced Fellows served as mentors, speakers, event organizers and leaders of participant groups as we moved from place to place over the course of the weekend. They also gave short ignite presentations on their work as Fellows, and shared their personal struggles and successes.

Day two of the Meetup took us to Youth Hub in Dubai, a collaboration space for young media professionals, entrepreneurs, researchers and programmers. There, participants learned how to create a culture of innovation within teams and organizations. They applied brainstorming and prototyping techniques to the projects that they identified during their UIF training.

Two visiting speakers came to share their stories with the Fellows. Muhammed Mekki, founding partner at coworking space and tech academy AstroLabs, discussed entrepreneurship culture and e-commerce potential in the Middle East. Hiba Balfaqih, founder of The Startup Factory and The Smash Room, inspired the group with her story of grit and personal motivation.

Meetups are not traditional conferences; we lead Fellows through hands-on activities that get them up from their chairs and interacting with one another. One such session from day two was the inspiration walk, an audio experience that helps people see things from a different perspective. Fellows grabbed their devices and headphones, and walked outside the building to find inspiration in nature that they could bring into how they approach problems in their lives, guided by the audio.

“After the inspiration walk and ⁨[Fab] Emma May⁩’s talk, I embraced my flaws,” said Nikhita Guduru of VR Siddhartha Engineering College. “There is nothing in the universe, not even nature, which is perfect. What matters is the drive to push, change and inspire!”

“The event showed me that everyone at every age has a point of view that matters, and that allowing myself to be silly and open hearted with the content was the best way to learn and grow,” said Lisa Dinh from Columbia University. “This rippled into more empathy for the cohort I am focusing on with my project: students in college with disabilities.”

On the third day, our group was hosted by our colleagues and Fellows at Abu Dhabi University’s Innovation Space. There, the theme of the day was “reimagining learning.” Sessions explored de Bono’s 6 thinking hats, the role of space in creating learning experiences, and how stokes (short interactive activities) can be used to create the right mindsets for learning. Participants learned about leadership (and followership) through movement when the whole group learned bachata, a dance from the Dominican Republic. They also took part in an unconference to explore topics of interest that they proposed.

“I realized through the activities that a leader is also a follower at the same time,” said Haleema Mulla Bakhsh of Abu Dhabi University. “It’s a matter of equal contribution by every member of team.”

For the final day of the event, we traveled back to Dubai, where we spent the morning at Microsoft learning about innovation culture, artificial intelligence and the future of work. We heard from Ihab Foudeh, General Manager Public Sector of Microsoft Middle East & Africa; Mourad Touzani, AI Consultant; and Yves Khalil, Senior Education Programs Director.

We closed the event at the Dubai campus of Abu Dhabi University, where Fellows and faculty worked with their school groups to weave various concepts they’d learned during the Meetup into their campus projects.

As a send-off, we ended with our traditional paper airplanes activity, where participants write an insight on colorful paper, fold it, and send their thoughts into the air.

“As a very shy person who doesn’t approach people a lot, I was able to break through and interact with many new people,” said Joe Khattar from Ajman University. “One of the best [paper airplane] quotes I read was simply ‘UIF is family,’ and this is very true. In the last day of the event, we were talking to each other as if we knew each other for years and years.”

We all left the room with new friends, new ideas, a renewed passion for changing higher education, and just a little bit of sand in our shoes.

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