A University of Colorado Denver delegation’s trip to the Middle East to strengthen bonds and open doors to new opportunities proved very successful. It left university leaders, including CU President Bruce D. Benson and First Lady Marcy Benson, with a strong feeling that the best of the relationships are yet to come.
The CU delegation met with leaders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, some of whom were educated at CU Denver, over a week in late March. “They were honored to have us, and the fact that President Benson and Marcy came along was a real sign of friendship and commitment from this university,” said CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell. “My goal for the trip was to deepen our relationships and explore new opportunities, and I came away feeling we were enormously successful.”
Besides Horrell and the Bensons, the CU delegation included John Sunnygard, Executive Director of International Affairs; Andrea Wagner, Vice Chancellor of Advancement; Noelle DeLage, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Advancement; and Kat Vlahos, Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture and Director of the Center of Preservation Research, College of Architecture and Planning (CAP).
“The incredible reception and hospitality we received in Qatar and Saudi Arabia demonstrated the high regard in which the University of Colorado is held,” President Benson said. “We were pleased to have the opportunity to strengthen ties between CU and our many alumni and friends in the region. International students add to the richness of the experience for all our students, and as we learned on the trip our alumni in different countries are wonderful ambassadors for the university.”
Commitment to excellence
For Horrell, the word that best encapsulated the visit was “abundance.” “We experienced an abundance of hospitality and an abundance of regard for our relationship – that in so many ways we are much more alike than we are different,” she said. “What we saw in Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a commitment to excellence in whatever they do. Both countries are driven by compelling visions of how they want to be so much more for their people and the world as well.”
The CU team met with alumnus Zuhair Fayez, co-founder of Dar Al-Hekma University (DAH), a private institution of higher education for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Fayez, who is chairman of the largest architectural/engineering/management firm in Saudi Arabia and developer of the Fayez International Exchange program, hosted the team at his home for a second time; a CU Denver delegation also visited a year ago.
Sunnygard was struck by three things on this return trip: hospitality, impact and recognition. In regard to hospitality, he said, the Middle Eastern hosts “were so generous because they wanted to show how much they value being part of the CU family, and how much they value us being part of their family.”
The profound impact of this relationship, meanwhile, has emerged over the decades. Promising young students such as Dr. Fayez, a CU alumnus and honorary doctorate recipient, were among waves of international youths arriving at U.S. universities in the hope they would receive a world-class education “and then they’d come back and, God willing, go on to do great things for their country,” Sunnygard said. “And they did.”
‘Entrusted with their most precious resource’
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the latter a young country that gained independence in 1971, are home to some of the world’s most sophisticated infrastructure, including transportation and architecture. “They recognize that human capital is their top priority,” Sunnygard said. “Their future is knowledge.”
Added Horrell, “And they’ve entrusted us with their most precious resource – their young people.”
The CU delegation also met with His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman, President and Chairman of the Board of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, and Dr. Mashary Al-Naim, Architecture Professor and General Supervisor of the National Built Heritage Center. They also enjoyed a gathering with CU Denver alumni living in the region.
Colorado is second home
Deep feelings for their alma mater in the Mile High City, discussed over coffee and dates, were palpable. Vlahos said, “There’s a true commitment to this university.” DeLage and Wagner added, “Colorado is a second home. … They really loved it here.”
The significance of family and faith can’t be overstated among the hosts, who demonstrated equal respect for the different faith and culture of their visitors. “I’d say it was stereotype-shattering,” Sunnygard noted of the open-mindedness the CU delegation enjoyed at every stop.
While Sunnygard, the Bensons and Horrell traveled on to visit Qatar and Prime Minister Abdulla Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose son Sheikh Nasser Al Thani graduated in Business Management from CU Denver last May, Vlahos and DeLage spent two extra days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Vlahos delivered a presentation at the Prince Sultan University as a guest of the National Built Heritage Center and Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, describing her role as chair of the Department of Architecture in CAP, as well as her work as director of the Center of Preservation Research (CoPR). CoPR partners with federal, state, and local agencies to study, document and potentially restore sites of historic and cultural significance.
Helping preserve heritage
Vlahos noted that the Saudis are exploring ways for their fast-evolving built environment – structures built within the last 50 years – to stand alongside buildings dating back centuries. They want the structures to coexist and be preserved while also be used as a way to embrace heritage. “We want to learn together and collaborate on cultivating stewards of their country’s heritage,” she said.
Getting direct exposure to the Middle East is helpful for CU Denver administrators and faculty as 256 of our current students hail from Saudi Arabia and another 52 are from Qatar. CU Denver alumni in the region number well into the hundreds. “To have a better understanding of where our international students are coming from enriches our ability to teach and connect,” Vlahos said.
Horrell said she’d like to increase opportunities for our students to study abroad in the Middle East and elsewhere as well as strengthen an exchange which has been piloted with Dar Al-Hekma University. She said the new scholarship campaign being developed at CU Denver offers an opportunity to open that door. “The opportunity to learn in another place is one of the greatest gifts we can give our students,” the chancellor said.
Gaining security, forensics expertise at CU Denver
Some of the leaders the CU team met, including Qatar Prime Minister Abdulla Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al Thani, expect to visit Denver in the near future. Members of Al Thani’s Ministry of Interior staff plan to attend a program this summer at CU Denver’s National Center for Media Forensics in the College of Arts & Media (CAM). Qatari officials are keen to provide their personnel top-flight security training as the country will host the World Cup in 2022.
Horrell said CU Denver will put even more emphasis on reaching out to its international students from the Middle East and elsewhere, recognizing the importance of having them as part of our community. “This is part of our effort to say our doors and hearts are open to them and these kinds of partnerships,” she said.
Nurture the relationship
‘This is part of our effort to say our doors and hearts are open to international students and these kinds of partnerships.’ – Chancellor Dorothy Horrell
Wagner said each small connection made with an international student on campus becomes the basis for larger global friendships. “Every one of those interactions counts and has an impact.”
Wagner pointed out that everything associated with these relationships creates a positive for the university – whether it be the enrollment of more international students, donations from alumni who’ve attained success across the globe, or the growth of study abroad opportunities for students.
“We just have to water and nurture the relationships to ensure that they continue to bear fruit,” she said.