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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

When You Decide to Live in the Desert for 4 Months

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • Where Qatar is on the world map

  • A story about getting rejected from my intended major, only to have that rejection eventually land me in Qatar

  • Not knowing my university had a campus in Qatar and how I found out about the exchange program

  • Quick list explaining when, where, why, how, and who I was with in Qatar

  • Not knowing what to expect, but feeling ready for it anyway


I like to think that I woke up one day and said to myself, “You know what would be a good idea? Finishing my senior year in a hot, sandy country I’ve never heard of.”

The country in question was Qatar. Can you see it?

How about now?

How about now?

Yep, that's Qatar.

It’s an itty-bitty peninsula attached to Saudi Arabia. If you’re from Virginia, it’s about as long as the distance between Fredericksburg and Dinwiddie, and as wide as the distance between Williamsburg and Midlothian. If you’re not from Virginia, what you need to know is this: Qatar is small enough to fit inside of Virginia. It’s about the size of Connecticut.

It was 1998 when VCU opened their Qatar campus in Education City—which meant the campus had been around for 20 years by the time I arrived—but the thing is, the VCU community rarely mentioned we had a whole arts campus overseas. As both an arts student and someone who had grown up around VCU, I had never heard of it and I didn’t have any thoughts of wanting to go there until the night I lied my way into the Fine Arts Building after-hours as a freshman in 2016. You see, I was there hoping to feel a connection to the major I had humbly wormed my way into: Painting and Printmaking.

Wait, let me tell that story:

I was a freshman in Art Foundation (AFO), the first-year major that all visual arts students must take. Only after being halfway through AFO was when we could apply to a major, be it Sculpture, Fashion, Painting, etc. My top three choices were Illustration, Graphic Design, and Fashion Design—in that order—but I honestly didn’t have the heart for the latter two majors, or any of VCU’s other art majors; no other major spoke to me the way illustration did. So, I went to my advisor for help with the application, and boy did he help me, until I realized—months later—that he hadn’t helped me at all. He had given me straight up misinformation about the application portfolio, which resulted in me getting into my third choice, a major that I didn’t have any love for.

I imagined myself spending the next three years doing something I didn’t enjoy, or biding my time until next year’s “change of major” applications came around, or having to stay an extra year (and pay an extra year) after changing my major. . . those images of the future didn’t appeal to me. So, two days after receiving the bad news, I submitted a vague online application to change my major to Illustration, I went to the Illustration department and told them the problem, and I even showed them the portfolio I would have submitted had I been instructed correctly, but it didn’t matter. What they essentially said to me was, “It’s unfair that happened to you, we’ll check into that, your portfolio is excellent, we’d love to have you, but sorry, we’re full.”

So, it was on to Plan B: Beg to be in PAPR (Painting & Printmaking). I hadn’t initially listed PAPR as one of my choices because, well, I didn’t know much about it. And in retrospect, I realize I didn’t know much about any of the arts majors I could have applied to, even after touring, researching, and asking around.

The whole decision-making process had been a big black hole for me, but amid my blackhole fumbling, I realized that PAPR could be a pretty damn good option for someone still interested in illustration.

So, less than a week after getting my “no” from the Illustration department, I was standing in a junky office meeting with interim PAPR department chair, requesting to be in the major. He looked at my portfolio, said I had nice color theory, signed a piece of paper, tossed it in a pile, and suddenly I was a Painting & Printmaking student.

Well, that worked out, I said to myself as I exited the building.

What I didn’t know, though, was just how well it had worked out.

Because, you see, if I had been in Illustration and not PAPR, I wouldn’t have been able to be an exchange student in Qatar. Why? Because VCU’s Qatar campus didn’t offer Illustration as a major.

Like I said, it worked out.

Yet during all of that, I still didn’t know VCU had a campus overseas.

Like I said, the only time I considered attending VCU-Qatar came from my illicit presence in the Fine Arts Building on a late April evening. There, on the wall of a dimly lit stairwell, was an expired poster requesting grant proposals.

That was when an idea hit me: Next year, I would write a grant proposal that somehow included a trip to Qatar.

There I was again trying to worm my way into something else, all in the name of education.

Little did I know VCUarts offered a Doha exchange program every semester for PAPR, Art History, and Design students.

In fact, I didn’t learn about the program until a year later when I was studying abroad in Morocco during May of 2017. There were students and faculty on the trip from VCU-Qatar and it was they who informed me that the program not only existed, but that two of the VCUQ students on the trip had participated in it and came to Richmond their senior year. They all encouraged me to apply and from then I knew I wanted to do the exchange program.

I had never wanted anything more in my life.

So, I went on through the rest of 2017 preparing as though my flight to Doha was already booked. I worked extra hours to make some extra change, I based my fall semester schedule on what classes I’d be taking in Doha the following spring, I attended meetings with advisors in the global education office, and, of course, I filled out the program application.

And I got accepted.

Now, let’s get into the details:

Doha cityscape

When did I go?

I arrived in early January 2018, just in time for the spring semester.

How long was I there?

Four incredibly surprising months

Where did I go?

Doha, Qatar. I lived in Shamali, the hella dope female dorm within Education City. Five days a week I was at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar, also called VCU-Qatar, VCUarts Qatar, and VCUQ.

How did I get there?

VCU sent a car to my house which drove me and another student to Dulles International Airport. From there I caught a 13-hour flight on Qatar Airways, a straight shot to Hamad International Airport in Doha. After that, the school’s liaison picked up all us exchange students and we made our way to Education City.

Who was I with?

The cohort for that semester included 3 other exchange students from VCU: Another PAPR major, one sculpture major (with PAPR minor), and one fashion designer.

Why was I there?

To continue studying PAPR and Art History as an exchange student.

But I still didn’t know what to expect.

I didn’t even know where Qatar was on a map. I didn’t know much about the city, the extent of its wealth, or even what VCUQ looked like. What I did know was that it was a Muslim country, there was a lot of desert, it had a striking cityscape, falconry was a thing, and there was an embargo going on. Still, even with knowing so little about what I was getting myself into, I was excited. The whole time—from the car ride, to the airport, to the moment I landed and that 30-minute drive to Education City—the excitement never faltered.

When I think back to the first time I studied abroad, I remember wanting something short, sweet, and simple, which is what Morocco gave me. When my Morocco experience was over though, I suddenly felt ready for the big plunge that was a four month stay in another foreign country. The exchange program was filled to the brim with not only the long-anticipated new experiences, but also some experiences I never saw coming. I learned a lot—about the country, the world, my friends, my family, and myself—and even though there were some rough times, all 122 days of my time abroad changed my life for the better in ways I never expected.

Seatbelt selfie

On the way to Dulles International Airport


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