Students Reflect on Fall Term in Kuwait

News subtitle

Dartmouth-AUK program helps them learn more about the diversity of the Middle East.

Dartmouth students in Kuwait
From left, Joseph Fausey ’23, Asha Dees ’25, Amen Salha ’26, Ana Torres Rodriguez ’24, and Victor Moreno ’25 attend a basketball game at the American University of Kuwait. (Photo by Amen Salha ’26)

Students in Kuwait for fall term as part of a longstanding Dartmouth partnership with the American University of Kuwait say their time there gave them a better understanding of the region, including its diversity.

Amen Salha ’26 traveled a circuitous route to spending last semester in Salmiya, Kuwait, as part of the 20-year-old Dartmouth-American University of Kuwait Program. Salha, who is interested in Middle Eastern studies and global health and is from Michigan, applied for the exchange program but was put on the waiting list. Since there were two applicants ahead of him, he figured going to Kuwait wasn’t in the cards.

“But then they weren’t able to do it and I got in,” he says. “It was like destiny.”

Along with four other Dartmouth students—some participating in a for-credit academic exchange and some working as interns at the private, liberal arts university—Salha spent the fall semester taking classes at AUK, exploring Kuwaiti and Middle Eastern history and culture, and, finding himself on top of his studies and with extra time on his hands, completing a fellowship with an organization dedicated to the rights of migrant workers in Kuwait.

“My father came from Lebanon to the United States, and as a first-generation American, I felt like I was starting to lose the culture,” Salha says. “At AUK, I wanted to take classes that taught me about my history.”

He did, studying subjects like Fundamentals of Arab Society and Kuwait history.

But he was struck by how much of the cultural learning he experienced happened as he walked the streets of Kuwait or joined acquaintances for meals or conversation.

“It was as if I was always in the classroom,” Salha says. A highlight of his cultural explorations was “experiencing Arab hospitality,” he says. “It was amazing how people treated us, welcomed us.”

The Dartmouth-AUK Program began in 2004 with the opening of AUK as a private university devoted to an American model of liberal arts education. Since 2005, more than 50 Dartmouth and AUK students have traveled to Kuwait or to Hanover to engage in cross-cultural internships.

And since 2019, the academic exchange program, administered in partnership with the Frank J. Guarini Institute for International Education and the Middle Eastern Studies Program, has sent five Dartmouth students and four AUK students to Kuwait and Hanover as part of the for-credit exchange program.

Despite a two-year suspension during the COVID-19 pandemic, the exchange program has been approved for another five years. A faculty exchange has brought 14 AUK faculty fellows to Dartmouth since 2009 for collaboration and joint research opportunities.

Kerry Laufer, the Dartmouth-AUK program’s deputy director for the last three years, has been actively involved in global experiential learning at Dartmouth since 2008. She says that the program with AUK is distinctive on campus and in higher education.

“Because it’s open to all majors, we see all different kinds of students participating,” she says. “That’s exciting and unique.”

She describes two recent participants, one a government and Middle Eastern studies major who seemed a “natural fit” for the exchange, and one a computer science major who was “just intrigued” by it. Matthew Pfundstein ’24 has since accepted a job in Dubai as a strategy consultant after graduation while Nicholas Luikey ’24 will travel to Guinea with the Peace Corps.

Dartmouth students at mosque
From left, Asha Dees ’25, Ana Torres Rodriguez ’24, Amen Salha ’26, and Victor Moreno ’25 visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi during a weekend trip to the United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Amen Salha ’26)

The benefits of cultural exchange are far-ranging, Laufer says. “It develops critical thinking you can’t get anywhere else. It gets us away from ‘us vs. them’ thinking.”

“Strong partnerships like the one we have built with AUK over the last 20 years are particularly important,” says Laufer, “because they contribute to students’ feelings of safety and well-being in parts of the world that are completely new to them.”

Although it was tense in parts of the Middle East following the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza, Kuwait is not involved in the conflict and students were able to continue their studies there.

Ana Torres Rodriguez ’24, a sociology major from New York, spent her fall working as an intern at AUK and says that she loved exploring Kuwait and neighboring countries and discovering the diversity of the region—and among her fellow participants. “We all brought distinct experiences to this place,” she says.

Torres Rodriguez worked in AUK’s Offices of International Student Programs and Alumni Affairs and Career Development creating resources for international students, researching possible partnerships with other universities, and working for AUK’s alumni magazine, which included writing an article on the importance of internships.

One of the things that will stay with her from the experience is the emphasis on work-life balance and relationships in Kuwaiti society, in contrast to life in the United States.

“I saw the model of a different life,” she says. “Relationships are so important and your relationships are really a part of your work life there too.”

It was also a revelation, she says, to discover through travel around Kuwait and in the United Arab Emirates that attitudes toward the situation in Israel and Gaza were not the same across the region.

Salha also says that he found that being in Kuwait deepened his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It made me ask, ‘What is the solution?’” he says. 

Salha says that one of his main takeaways was “how diverse the Arab world is” and he can see himself living and working in the Gulf region, a major crossroads for the exchange of goods and ideas, after graduation.

“AUK is such a hub for diversity,” Salha says.