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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Being a Graduating Senior Exchange Student During the 20th Anniversary at VCUQ

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • Experiencing VCUQ compared to VCU-Richmond: The building, the students, and the accessibility of art tools and space.

  • Experiencing the 20th anniversary: The community, the celebrations, and the swag.

  • Being an exchange student: Lots of welcome activities jammed into the first week, being featured on social media, and still being just a regular student.

  • Being a senior: Senior classes, senior thesis, and senior celebrations

  • Being a graduating senior: Explaining the two ceremonies, “Walking” vs. graduating, the affordability of being a senior at VCUQ compared to VCU-Richmond, and how the ceremony turned out.

  • Final thoughts on doing so many things at a foreign university


Behold, my attempt to plan out the last two weeks of my abroad experience on a 3x3 sticky note. I needed to do finals week, attend senior showcase, graduate, get an exit permit, fly back to America, and somehow squeeze in a trip to Istanbul.

You see that title? Oh yeah, best believe there was a lot going on.

Let me try and break it down piece by piece.

Being at VCUarts Qatar (compared to VCU-Richmond)

VCUQ completely blew my mind. The way it looked, the way I was treated, the things I had access to . . . VCUQ felt like VCU’s prettier, smarter, nicer younger sister (but to be fair, VCU was 180 years old, while VCUQ was only 20 at the time).

For one thing, the size of the school effected the way everything functioned. Picture VCU-Richmond: A huge, open, urban campus. The art school alone spans at least six buildings, and one day of class could easily take me back and forth between busy streets, the library basement, the Fine Arts Building, Harris Hall, Oliver Hall, the Pollock Building, a Dunkin’ Donuts, the Student Commons, and my apartment. VCUQ, in contrast, is one building, and inside that building are six art departments, a materials library, a regular library, a cafeteria, an atrium, a gallery space, the admissions office, student affairs, the counseling department, records & registration, and a coffee shop (and the girls’ dorm is right across the street).

Anywhere I needed to go and anyone I needed to talk to was always somewhere between the first & third floor of VCUQ, and for a long time that sort of accessibility felt bizarre. No longer did I have to memorize street names, time traffic lights, or hunt down shortcuts, instead I just had to remember room numbers and basic directions like “upstairs”, “downstairs”, and “the room next to the water fountain”. It sounds simple probably because it is simple, but I had a genuinely difficult time finding my way around the VCUQ building (possibly because I hadn’t had to navigate an indoor place of learning since middle school). Some confusion was warranted, like mixing up the two IT offices or forgetting that the American “first floor” is the Qatari “ground floor” (which makes the “second floor” the “first floor”, and so on), but I was that person who knew where the café was—under a stairwell on the ground floor, right off the orange hall, fifteen steps from the security desk—but simply couldn’t find my way there on purpose, no matter how many stairwells I climbed, elevators I took, corners I turned, doors I entered, steps I retraced, or landmarks I labeled. For months it felt like I was in a Twilight Zone, M. C. Escher Relativity situation.

Even with my spatial confusion, however, I thought that the VCUQ building was lovely to look at. It’s one of the older university buildings in Education City, but I only noticed its datedness after comparing it to newer buildings like Northwestern (with its backlit calligraphy façade, LED media walls, and hallways that seemed to levitate). Even still, coming from VCU-Richmond—a campus composed of renovated historical homes, new buildings with shiny windows & sexy curves, basements with tacky 80s carpeting, and a mix of both colorfully modern and uncomfortably old furniture—VCUQ was a completely different experience. It had majlises, balconies, skylights, string lights, painted hallways, and clear influences from traditional Muslim architecture . . . it was nice to look at because it was different than what I was used to and because it was just a pretty building in its own right.

The fact there were moments when I could see the building without a horde of students crowding the scene (something difficult to accomplish back in Richmond) was a little trippy at times.

But let’s go back to how small VCUQ is. The small size meant I was able to spend more one-on-one time with teachers, better interact with students in other majors, generally forge relationships easier, and there was minimal runaround when I needed a question answered. Seriously, when your academic advisor only has to remember the concerned faces of 75 students instead of 200, it makes academic life a hell of a lot easier. VCUQ also had amenities that made my experience as a student and my art practice more manageable; having things like free printing and a personal studio made a bigger impact than I anticipated.

Watching the evolution of my first personal studio space was pretty satisfying.

You know something else that made being a student artist easier? VCUQ gave me most of my painting supplies. Paper, paint, brushes, canvas, terpenoid, gesso, fabric stiffener, and a fancy brush cleaning jar with a metal coil, was all gifted to me because I was a student. It was normal for VCUQ to provide their students with the materials they needed to support their education and art practice, and if there was something you really wanted that VCUQ didn’t have, you were welcome to ask and see if they would order it for you. I never got around to making any special requests, though; I had most of my artistic bases covered with what VCUQ did provide me with. It had to be at least $200 worth of supplies, and that’s a conservative guess. Thing is, VCUQ has all kinds of cool art tools, including laser cutters, plenty of printing presses, a woodshop, and I'm pretty sure a 3D printer was mentioned among some other fancy contraptions that I had never even heard of.

As much as I love trolling for A.C. Moore, Michael’s, and Plaza coupons, that green goodie bucket from VCUQ was better than any clearance, coupon, or closeout sale any art store could hope to offer.

I should also mention that the official teaching language at VCUQ is English and there were plenty of American teachers, so there’s no need to worry about language barriers as an exchange student.

When it comes to stats & percentages, the student population was roughly 50% Qatari and 50% expatriate in 2018 (and that 50/50 ratio had stayed consistent in the years prior). Of those expats, black students were definitely in the minority; over the course of four months I only met five other black students (and one of them may not have even attended VCUQ come to think of it), and in the graduating class, there were only two of us (which meant that if I had kept my American ass in Richmond for the semester, there only would have been one). I don’t think this observation suggests any sort of racial discrimination on the part of VCUQ, I think it’s just a statistical thing having that people of African descent only contribute to about 5% of the population in Qatar. Using that stat, if VCUQ has 300 students, I could only expect 15 to be black (and if split evenly between all four grade levels, I could only expect about 4 in a graduating class). Thing is, most of the people in that 5% are migrant workers, not students, so when you factor that in, it’s unsurprising that there was only one black person aside from myself in the graduating class.

You know what demographic is not in the minority, though? Women. VCUQ (and Education City in general) was primarily composed of female students (despite Qatar as a whole being 75% male). It wasn’t uncommon to have a class that was completely filled with ladies, and of the four classes I took—totaling in at about 40 individual students—there were only three boys.

That said, on the downside, if I had been hoping to make a love connection, I would have had slim pickings, but on the upside, I could remember every male student’s name because I only saw 12 of them! In all seriousness, though, being in a school that was predominantly female definitely impacted my experience. Even though all the students were initially strangers to me, the fact that most of us were women contributed to my feelings of safety on campus and promoted a sense of familiarity and solidarity, which made socializing easier.

Something else about VCUQ compared to VCU-Richmond is that there was a stronger vibe of unurgency among students the semester I was there. As an American, I was accustomed to high stress and competition being par for the course because it’s a bit of a cultural norm (and as a black person and a woman, my life adhered to the principle of needing to be twice as good and work twice as hard to advance in the uphill battle that is American success). When you add in being a student, I was always concerned with things like scholarship eligibility, student loans, part-time jobs, internships, and whatever else it took to make my resume drip gold and my education continuable.

What I realized, though, is that many of my worries as a student didn’t exist for some of the students at VCUQ, which may have played a part in why the atmosphere was so lax at times. Granted, relaxed behavior is a bit of a cultural norm in Qatar (which you can read more about in the TIQ article) and every university has their fair share of overly chill undergraduates (senioritis definitely transcends international borders), but to see so many students unconcerned with little things like showing up to class on time or turning in assignments at the deadline—let alone student loans & internships—caught me off guard.

So why didn’t these worries exist for some of the students?

Well, unsurprisingly, there were a lot of Qatari citizens attending VCUQ, and the thing with Qatari citizens is that they are eligible for free education. I’m sure there is some nuance in there, and perhaps “free” isn’t free free, but any kind of “free” is freer than the $32,000 it cost to attend VCUQ. The more students and faculty talked to me about it, the more I realized that the whole “free education for citizens” thing meant that approximately half of the student body wasn’t scrambling to pay for their education. I even met a considerable number of students who already had jobs lined up for them after graduation, sometimes as part of the Paid Service Program (in which you agree to work for a Qatar Foundation approved organization for a little while in order to pay off your loans). Still, job security is job security, and it meant that an abundance of resume boosting activities (like internships, extracurricular leadership, and gallery exhibitions) wasn’t a dire necessity; after all, you don’t need to stand out in an applicant pool when you’ve already got the job.

Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of students working hard to achieve the life, academic career, and art practice they wanted, but at the end of the day, Qatar still had the resources to eliminate for them many of the worries I as an American student had.

But hey, on a lighter note, look at this water fountain!

I don’t know if this thing was built by Evian, sponsored by Evian, had an Evian sticker slapped on it by a student, or if genuine Evian water flowed out of this thing, but I feel compelled to show it off just in case the latter is true.

Oh, and do you remember when I mentioned VCUQ had a coffee shop in the building? Well, tucked beneath a staircase on the ground floor is a mini The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. This meant that for the first time in my college career I didn’t have to walk all the way to Broad Street for Dunkin’ or fight through caffeine withdrawn freshmen at the library Starbucks. I could simply walk downstairs to buy my overpriced falafel wraps, chai tea, and frappuccino-things. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the highlights of my VCUQ experience.

The Coffee Bean

It was always really nice to combine my studio time with a sugar rush.

Being at VCUQ for the 20th anniversary

Here we have a group photo taken during the 20th anniversary celebration with the new Executive Dean. I’m in the middle row, fifth from the right.

VCUQ, founded in 1998, had just begun to celebrate their 20th anniversary when I got there in January of 2018. In the spirit of tame revelry and university pride, VCUQ had karak every Wednesday and periodic mini parties (karak is a type of Indian chai tea by the way). These celebrations were not only intermittent doses of midday fun, but they always exceeded my expectations of what a casual university event felt like. Yeah, sometimes it was a classic pizza party with a side of Chips Oman & Coca-Cola, but other times there were salmon & cream cheese crackers, spring rolls, nacho trays, samosas, mozzarella sticks, tea, coffee, tiny desserts, a chocolate fountain, as well as an inflatable dinosaur man, a kiddie pool full of chips, a photobooth, and music blasting through speakers. My point is that there was always something that surprised me, and what’s best is that there was always a repeat of familiar faces (from both students and faculty) which meant I was never awkwardly alone in a corner eating the free food.

Truth is, though, there were so many celebrations happening at VCUQ the semester I was there, I ended up losing track of what exactly we were celebrating sometimes. Was it the 20th anniversary, the welcoming of the new dean, the graduating senior class, or some other thing I overlooked in the monthly email blast?

Even without those mini celebrations, though, the acknowledgment of VCUQ’s 20 years of existence was everywhere. It was on the letterheads, the emails, the walls, the coffee mugs, the magnet frames, the tiny buttons, the photobooth green screen, and even the graduation regalia. There was even a wall of photos displaying images of the faculty from when they were 20 years-old, which was not only cute (and hilarious), but it also gave off a vibe that the entire VCUQ community was celebrating. Nothing felt forced or ingenuine, and in short, being at VCUQ for the 20th anniversary was a pleasant atmosphere to be in (and mildly lit at times). It was a unique experience that won’t ever happen again and being able to participate in the celebration was by far one of the best experiences of being a student over there.

20th anniversary swag, cake, and shiny wall decals.

Being an Exchange Student

As a foreigner living in Qatar, even if only for a few months, I was considered an expatriate, which meant I needed a sponsor to keep me in the country. In my case Qatar Foundation was my sponsor (as VCUQ is a part of Qatar Foundation) and they stuck a big ‘ol Arabic sticker on my passport just in case anybody questioned it. I also received a Qatar ID (Q-ID), which further supported my residency status . . . that card was also printed in Arabic.

The most memorable part of being an exchange student, though, were the many “welcome to Doha” excursions jam packed into my first week abroad, some hosted by faculty and some by other students. Mini orientation meetings, lunches, dinners, grocery shopping, shisha breaks, tours—oh my goodness, the tours—tours of VCUQ, tours of Education City, tours of Qatari malls, tours of the Corniche, tours of the Pearl, tours of Souq Waqif . . . I went to Souq Waqif three times that week. I especially remember a big dinner at Al Majlis Al Arabi Restaurant for all of Education City’s exchange students. That day—which also included a mini tour around Doha, and later a tour of the souq—was the only time I spent with exchange students from other schools, and one of the few times I spent with the other three VCU exchange students.

Though spending that first week getting a crash course on Qatar and meeting the other American exchange students was nice, there was so much activity crowded into such a short span of time that I didn’t get a complete sense of what Education City and Doha had to offer. The things I learned through my own exploration are really how I got familiar with my new environment, so don’t think that a university tour is going to show you everything you need to see. Another thing about doing something new every day is that it was exhausting. Meeting new students, riding on boats, eating new food, seeing museums, touring the market . . . Much of it was fun as hell and undeniably memorable, but it was also anxiety inducing sometimes. The peace I felt when I was finally able to sit in my dorm all day and just breathe is indescribable.

Ah, but another part of being an exchange student—a part that definitely caught me off guard—was how often I was featured on social media. Coming from VCU-Richmond, the exchange students fly under the radar simply because the school is so big. VCUQ, in comparison, is itty-bitty, so when four exchange students show up in January people notice. The VCUarts Qatar Instagram was hella active and posted so many things about all their students, and the fact they wanted to include the exchange students in that mix really made me feel like part of the community.

Like I said, the VCUQ Instagram was fire. Fun fact: That pic of me with the giant eyeball was the first time I had ever knowingly been posted to someone else's Instagram story. Being an exchange student was full of new experiences, big and small.

But hey, even though I was an exchange student and often received special attention because of it, I was also just a student. I still took regular degular classes, had essays to write, critiques to attend, and a degree to pursue, just like normal. So, even though the “exchange” part of exchange student peaked at times, the “student” aspect was consistent and very familiar.

I had more free time than usual this semester, which allowed me to create a very detailed "introduce yourself & your art practice as a family tree" project. It also gave me time to lollygag while simultaneously contemplating said project.

I took a jewelry class as an elective. The ring is supposed to be shiny (I didn't clean it right), the braid was supposed to spin (it doesn’t), and the metal turns my finger green (yikes), but look, Mom, I made this in art class!

Being a Senior

Being a senior meant a lot of things. It meant I got to camp out in the senior studios, it meant the senior studios became my part-time place of residence, and it meant underclassmen were encouraged to observe my studio (and even write a paragraph on my art practice). Most importantly, it meant I had to come up with a fully realized collection of paintings (which went . . . decently well. You can read more about that in my post about what sort of art you can do in Qatar).

I coincidentally matched my artwork this day.

These paintings I had to come up with were all for the Senior Showcase, an exhibition of all the seniors’ thesis projects. In preparation for the showcase, I naturally had to take classes like Senior Thesis and Senior Seminar. Both classes had great instructors who were wholeheartedly interested in helping us succeed as students, artists, and mini adults attempting to navigate life in general.

Being a senior meant I not only got to create art for the showcase, but I also got to choose my wall in the gallery, write my artist statement (six times), and hang my artwork . . . which meant I didn’t leave the gallery until I finished hanging at 11pm and I returned home covered in spackle.

Being covered in spackle was a badge of pride . . . that's what I kept telling myself as I spent half the night washing it out of my hair.

Then, there was the opening of Senior Showcase, which was worth every hour I spent in preparation. Yes, it was very exciting for me to see my paintings scatter hung on a freshly painted white wall, but to see the work of all the other seniors across every major was even better. The entire first floor was filled with artwork that was thoughtful, creative, unique, and beautiful; Senior Showcase was filled with talent and was one of the best exhibitions I had ever experienced.

A slightly awkward "proud mama photo" of me at the start of Senior Showcase.

Right, and of course being a senior meant I got to participate in all the “congrats you’re a senior” celebrations. Dessert bars, fancy snacks, inflatable dinosaurs, and confusingly gritty neon blue drinks accompanied otherwise boring things like regalia rental. Being a senior at VCUQ made being a senior fun and it was the only time I felt kind of happy about my impending “you’ll soon be in the real world” status.

My senior jacket became like a security blanket.

Being a Graduating Senior

My graduation regalia.

Yep, I participated in Commencement while studying in Doha. To be clear, there were two Commencement ceremonies: VCUarts Qatar Commencement and Qatar Foundation Convocation. I didn’t participate in QF Convocation because I was in Turkey that day, but I did hang around for the VCUQ one and wow what a memory that was. Granted, my family was still in Richmond (which is why I gave away most of my tickets), but I still had some supporters in the live audience. VCUQ also did a live stream, so all my peeps back in Richmond were still able to watch it.

The VCUarts Qatar Commencement invitation. It was pretty cool having everything written in Arabic and English.

To clarify, though, I didn’t actually graduate; I just walked in the ceremony. You see, I still had some classes to take—classes that weren’t being offered in Doha the semester I was there—which meant I had to finish them up once I got back to America. Only after finishing those remaining handful of credits would I actually receive my degree. However, since I had so few credits left to take, VCUQ allowed me to walk in their ceremony. It was easy peasy, and VCU-Richmond would have let me do the same thing, except that if I had walked in the VCU-Richmond ceremony, I would have been required to finish my last few credits over the summer.

Taking summer classes would have been an impossible feat because I didn’t have any money to pay for said classes (it was much more practical for me to work over the summer, make money for school, and then pay to take the classes in the Fall). Thing is, taking classes in the Fall would have lumped me into December Commencement, and though graduation is graduation no matter the season, I wanted to walk in May because I would have really been graduating in May if VCUQ had been offering the last few classes I needed. It was just a coincidence that they weren’t offering the classes I needed the semester I was there, but I wasn’t willing to let a coincidence push back my graduation celebration by seven months.

So, I talked to my academic advisors and—boom—that’s how I got permission to walk in the ceremony.

Ah, but while we’re here, let me give you two very relevant side notes:

  • VCUQ allows students to walk in the May ceremony under the circumstance that they finish their remaining classes by December (as opposed to the summer). I think it’s because they don’t have a December commencement ceremony.

  • This may sound odd but being able to rent my regalia at VCUQ as opposed to paying $80 for it at VCU-Richmond was amazing. Why? Because once I returned the gown, I got my money back, but I got to keep the cords, hood, and cap! Listen, I owe VCU a lot (both financially and in sentimental gratitude), but I’ve got to say it was refreshing to feel like VCUQ had little interest in making a profit off me in way VCU-Richmond sometimes made me feel.

Outside the Sheraton Grand Doha after graduation. This was the first time I wore that outfit, which I had bought a year ago in Morocco.

Right, so what was VCUarts Qatar Commencement like? Well, it was a small ceremony; there were only about seventy seniors, including graduate students, and the event went by fairly quickly (especially in comparison to the preparation time; for about two hours I was the only student in the dressing room, very hungry and wondering if I was in the right place. I should have arrived late like everyone else doggonit). The venue was the Sheraton Grand Doha—the nicest and most pyramidal hotel I had thus far ever visited—and the reception had a photobooth and fancy finger food (I ate entirely too many bite sized blueberry cheesecakes).

Me: That’s a tortilla chip and a chicken nugget popsicle sitting in . . . what is that?

My foodie friend: That’s a poppadom with ginger sesame chicken in a mint yogurt sauce.

Me: . . . That’s a chicken nugget and a tortilla chip.

The ceremony itself also had excellent video coverage with multiple HD camera angles and a great photographer (what’s best is that VCUQ allowed us to have the professional photographs free of charge). Ah, but that in mind, remember to smile. It was a bit unnatural, but between the hired photographer, the video feed, the VCUQ social media slayers, and my guest (a journalism major), there were a lot of cameras hiding around.

Alright, so not all the smiles were forced. A lot of them were real.

Final thoughts

I didn’t expect to necessarily enjoy being an exchange student at VCUQ. I thought I was going to have a good time engaging with my new environment, but I figured that being a student was pretty cut and dry, no matter where in the world I was. What I ended up experiencing, though, was so much more than I imagined. Heck, I even enjoyed my fake VCUQ graduation more than my real Richmond one later that year.

You see, because even though it was a university overseas, it didn’t feel terribly foreign. I still saw college students acting like college students: Running late to class, stressing about finals, forming cliques, joining clubs, or wearing the classic pajama pants & sweatshirt combo (often covered by an abaya). Though I did experience a lot of new things, and though some of those things contributed to some culture shock, I made sure I didn’t let it detract from the experience of being a graduating senior exchange student during VCUQ’s 20th anniversary. To have all those events intersect at the same time was a wild coincidence and I made a point to just “go for it”, whatever it was.

I went to university events, I spent overtime in the studio, I talked to the faculty, I snapped pics in the photobooth with strangers, and I took unexpected risks (like asking if I could fake-graduate from a school I’d technically only been attending for 3 months). My thought process was that I was only going to be a VCUarts Department Exchange Student once, so I might as well soak everything the experience wanted to offer me. So even with the anxiety, confusion, exhaustion, and occasional dizziness, I can say that all the satisfaction I got from being an exchange student is a direct result of all the effort I put into being present for both the exchange part and the student part.



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