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Back Story

From Richmond to Distant Doha

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Since moving to the Middle East three years ago, Sterling H. Daniel admits he misses several things about his home state of Virginia—specifically enjoying the changing of the seasons and watching the Virginia Tech Hokies games at a normal time, instead of at 3 a.m. 

“You may not have every product or service you’re used to in your home country, but that’s part of why you go after experiences like this, to challenge yourself and see how adaptable you really are,” says the director of financial planning and operations for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Doha, Qatar.

While living overseas, Daniel and his family have tried to explore the countries in that part of the world and appreciate the different cultures. “We’re trying to hit the areas in the region that are safe, which are narrowing,” he says. 

“We went to Cairo when my wife Carly was seven months pregnant with our second son. We’ve gone as far as Hong Kong, and we just returned from Thailand. We have been to Jordon, and the United Arab Emirates, and have made a few European stops as well. We were hoping to go to Nepal but that terrible earthquake delayed those plans. The baby is now a world traveler, racking up frequent flyer miles at just 11 months old. The only down-side is he won’t remember any of it.”

How did you end up at VCU’s branch campus in Qatar?

“You mean, ‘How did a state employee of Virginia find his way to the Middle East?’” 


I was working on higher education and K–12 issues for the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget, so I was aware of the campus in Qatar. My wife and I enjoy traveling internationally and have always had an itch to live abroad. When I heard about the opening for this position, it seemed like a good match—I could go overseas and remain a state employee, just as if I were sitting in Richmond, Virginia.  

Why did VCU set up a branch campus in Doha, Qatar?

Qatar Foundation—a nonprofit entity with a mission to build an education hub in the Middle East and to attract the best universities in the U.S.—approached VCU about coming to Qatar and running its highly acclaimed arts program, for students in the region. The country has placed a lot of value and resources in building the art culture here. 

Our agreement started in 1998, so we’ve had this branch campus for almost 20 years.

Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha, Qatar

How many students are enrolled in the program?

We have between 280 and 300 students. Most of those draw from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Persian Gulf states, including Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Of the universities with branch campuses here, we enroll the largest percentage of Qatari students —over 50 percent—which helps Qatar Foundation in its quest to build a knowledge-based culture.

So there are other branch campuses?

Yes, Qatar Foundation also established branch campuses with Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Texas A&M University, College Station; Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh; and Weill Cornell, New York City, among others. Funding for our programs comes directly from Qatar Foundation, which collects tuition from students.  

What’s the mix of male and female students?

It depends on the major. Our students are predominately female, while Texas A&M’s engineering program has been predominately male.  

Classes are taught in what language?

English. The design is to mirror the programs on the home campus and offer the same level of education. Upon completion of the program, our graduates are awarded a VCU degree.  

How does the tuition in Doha compare to VCU tuition at the Richmond campus?

Our tuition, along with that of the other U.S. universities operating under Qatar Foundation, is driven by the home campus. We charge the nonresident tuition for VCU, because both the student and the campus are out of state. 

Does VCU have any policies that are specific to Qatar?

The challenge for the administrators who operate here is to balance the guidelines that the Qatar Foundation places on us with the policies and procedures of the home campus. When that’s not possible or practical, we are granted exceptions.  

For example?

I oversee procurement. When we have to get three quotes, there may be only one company in the entire country that is authorized to sell that item. We have to balance the intent of the home campus policies with what’s available and practical here.

You’ve been in Qatar for almost three years. What new processes have you implemented? 

We’ve tried to get rid of paper. This is a very paper-based culture. We used to have finance document shipments going back to the home campus on a daily and weekly basis.  Those have been eliminated, and we now use Web-based transmissions, which have been better for everyone but the postal service.

Is it a challenge to stay connected to your home campus?

We have an eight-hour time difference—seven hours during daylight savings. Since weekends in the Arab culture are Friday and Saturday, our workweek starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. That alone offers challenges in coordinating meetings. By the time our home campus opens on Monday morning, we have basically completed two days of our workweek. 

How many staff members work at the campus?

We employ approximately 100 international faculty, both teaching and administrative, who come from all over the world, including the U.S., Europe, and the MENA region. We also have 40 local positions. 

Local positions?

We have two different types of employees. Those who were already in the country and hired locally into their positions are not employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia. They are strictly here to work at VCU Qatar. All of our international faculty members are VCU employees, even if they didn’t come from the home campus. I’ve got five different nationalities on my six-person staff. All but one are local-hire positions.

What cultural or religious accommodations do you make for your staff?

Qatar has a very strict policy as far as religion is concerned. The Muslim staff have prayer multiple times a day, and they are free to pray when they need to. We take into account cultural exceptions, out of respect for the community in which we operate. 

What about safety? Is that ever an issue?

No, not really. Qatar is a very safe environment for families. Our oldest son, who is now six, started school and immediately adapted and has done great. He has students of 15 to 20 different nationalities in his classroom. That experience and exposure broadens his horizons.

What’s the current overall sentiment toward Americans?

Positive. We haven’t experienced any negative feedback. The American presence here isn’t as strong as it is in some European countries, but there is a large U.S. military base and Secretary of State John Kerry and various U.S. delegations routinely visit.

What’s the biggest risk you have taken in your career?

Coming to Qatar. When we’re ready to leave here, there is no guarantee of a position for me on the home campus.

That sounds scary.

My guiding philosophy is to keep stepping out of my comfort zone. I believe in constantly challenging myself.   

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Credit: Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar