University leaders often proclaim that one of their strategic goals is to graduate “global citizens.” Implicit in this goal is the belief that students, upon graduation, will feel more deeply connected with their world. This assumption is challenged when the second-class status of native-born, noncitizen students is reinforced, rather than mitigated, at an American branch campus. What is gained when local interpretations of the presence of an American branch campus and an “American” curriculum are explored rather than assumed?

Based on her ethnographic work in Dubai and Doha, Neha Vora, in the article “Is the University Universal? Mobile (Re)Constitutions of American Academia in the Gulf States,” exposes a surprising paradox. On the one hand, American universities assign specific missions, values, and curricula to their international branch campuses. On the other hand, students often interpret and respond to these missions, values, and curricula in unanticipated ways.

The students that Vora interviews understand concepts of citizenship, identity, and sense of place by drawing on their own experiences as non-Emiratis living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). By focusing on context, Vora raises complex discussions about what the terms “global” and “universal” signify in higher education settings that are both familiar and foreign. Vora explains that the UAE limits citizenship to children of Emirati fathers. Thus, those born in the UAE to an Indian father are considered Indian, not Emirati—even if the Indian family has resided in the UAE for more than one generation. All of the benefits of citizenship, including admission to public schools, are restricted to Emiratis. Given the high percentage of non-Emirati workers in the UAE, specifically from South Asia, a large percentage of university-age students have grown up in the UAE without access to public education. Up until the introduction of international and private universities, only Emirati citizens had access to the universities, as all of the local universities were public.

The presence of local international and private universities awarded locally-born Emirati children and locally-born, non-Emirati children their first opportunity to go to school together. However, this interaction has led the students in Vora’s story to think quite critically about their place in the UAE. Vora shares that local, non-Emirati students must deal with constant perceptions that they are second-class immigrants by their Emirati neighbors on these American branch campuses. For example, the Gulf Arab students push ahead in line and insist that the non-Arab students hand over their lecture notes. Vora notes that, “ironically, then, it was the supposedly egalitarian platform of the university, and not the segregated environment of their childhoods, that showed South Asian youth the realities of social hierarchies in the UAE” (Vora 2015, 26). While the university has provided a space for these two populations to connect, in actuality, that intersection has created a deeper sense of division that students, especially the South Asian students, have not had to previously address. While many U.S. universities introduce and explore issues of global citizenship on their campuses—even including “global citizenship” in their mission statements—it is the concept of national citizenship that continues to be the most salient and critical, especially with regard to the South Asian students at these branch campuses in the UAE.

Through this and other examples, Vora offers ideas of citizenship and identity in a rich and multifaceted way, and suggests that the “learning” taking place on these campuses may be as diverse as the students they attract. Vora concludes with a provocative question: “what exactly are we losing through internationalization of our universities, and which actors are centered and which marginalized in the language of loss and gain?” (Vora 2015, 33). It is a question worth considering, even though the answer will likely require a tapestry rather than a single thread.

Vora, Neha. 2015. “Is the University Universal? Mobile (Re)Constitutions of American Academia in the Gulf Arab States.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 46, 1:19–36. doi:10.1111/aeq.12085.

Tamar Breslauer, NAFSA’s Senior Research Specialist, looks for interesting questions in the areas of global learning, internationalization and the contexts in which these exist and shares her findings through NAFSA Research Connections. To discuss the questions raised in this research and to share your reactions with others, please visit the NAFSA Research Connections discussion forum.