SHARJAH // Beyond the switch from Arabic to English, students starting university face another big hurdle - becoming independent.
A new summer programme at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) aims to bridge that gap for many new students.
Last week, 29 high school students aged 15 to 18 - mainly Emiratis, but some from as far afield as Russia and Jordan - began the month-long programme.
University officials said demand for the Dh4,750 course has been surprising - they had expected a class of about 10.
"We didn't want to expand too much this first year and bring in any teachers from outside AUS so we had the continuity of those people who knew the system, the textbooks," said Lina Hejjawi, the course co- ordinator.
"This year will be like a model for us to work on the plan for next year as we expand.
"It's a very important programme for us as community outreach is a big priority, but it's great we've had such a big response from foreign students, as that adds a new dimension to the programme as well, since we have over 50 nationalities at AUS."
She says students are often unfamiliar with the expectations of university study, from time management to organisation skills, as well as academic skills such as maths and English. As a result, many suffer during their first term or end up spending up to a whole year in the bridging programme to get their English to a high enough standard.
"We are trying to catch them early enough so that by the time they reach university they will be better prepared," she said.
Managing their own workload and adjusting to life away from home is a major transition for students, according to Eleni Papailia, head of the university's test centre.
"Coming and staying here, they can experience life on campus, use the library, the gym, living in the dorms," she said. "For many it's their first experience of life away from home."
Jesse Macpherson, one of the teachers, said many students miss the most basic skills required for independent learning, from organising their own files, to taking notes. "The study groups in this programme encourage the students to be self-directed so they can push themselves," he said.
Jawaher Abdullah, 17, is from Kalba, north of Sharjah. She has been at a girls' school all her life and says moving to a mixed environment at university is one of the biggest obstacles. "Even at home, we are all girls," she said. "My twin brother is abroad and so mixing is hard at first."
Her English is better than most - she can converse comfortably - but she admits she still would like to improve her reading and writing.
She is one of the many who are staying in the university dorms, getting a true taste of life away from her home comforts.
"I'm living in dorms to learn how to take care of myself better and learn skills such as time management," she said.
Fatima Al Shamsi, 16, from Dubai, is commuting each day, to improve her maths skills, with the hope of getting accepted to study engineering by the time she leaves school.
She too studies at a girls' school, and admits feeling shy in mixed group. However, rather than study closer to home, she wanted to find out what an international university was all about.
"It's more free than school," she said. "It's a new thing for me to meet so many people of other nationalities."
Mohammaed Mustafa, 18, is Jordanian but his parents live in Saudi Arabia. He says the students are learning from each other, not just the academics of English and maths, but the social etiquette of being among such a diverse range of people and taking responsibility for themselves.
"We are experiencing life on our own, without our parents motivating us to do things," he said. "My parents encourage me to rely on myself but this has taken things to a whole new level."