After years of relying on the safety net of family, thousands of young people will soon be leaving the UAE to study at a university in another part of the world. For most it is a traumatic experience, but a safety net has been opened with the help of a new counselling project.
DUBAI // It is the biggest adventure of their young lives, but one that comes with a certain amount of nervous anticipation.
As their time at school and college here comes to a close, many UAE students are getting ready to leave the comforts of home to study abroad.
For one close-knit Dubai family, life will never quite be the same again. While one sister is heading to the United States, another is entering the world of work. Their little brother, too, is crossing the Atlantic to study.
Hiba Abdel-Jaber, 21, has won a place at the Princeton University to study structural engineering, after turning down an impressive range of alternative offers from Stanford, Berkley and Columbia universities.
A Jordanian who was born and bred in Dubai, Ms Abdel-Jaber has just graduated from the American University of Dubai in civil engineering. She says a lack of master's degrees in the UAE, especially in her field, led her to look abroad.
Leaving her family will be the hardest part, she says. "My sister and I just graduated together from doing the same degree," she says.
"We did nearly all the same courses. We can't really believe we're going to have to say goodbye. We're in denial."
Her brother, Ahmad, is 17. He too will leave the family home in Dubai, and go to New York University. He also admits that leaving the security of the family is his biggest fear.
"It will take some getting used to being in a big city," he says. "In Dubai you depend a lot on your parents, so going off to university will be difficult, but that's part of the experience."
Sometimes the process of picking an overseas college requires help from outside the family.
That was the case for the Lebanese student Marianne El Khoury, who says she is ready to spread her wings, leaving the protective "bubble" that is her adoptive home.
"You can't stay too long as there's only so much you can do," she says. "University is a time to experience more and feel more freedom."
Ms El Khoury is travelling to the US to study graphic design at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.
She was helped by a new counselling project set up by Intelligent Partners, an education consultancy which employed two former deans of Ivy League universities to direct the advisory programme for Dubai students: Marc Zawel, the author of Untangling the Ivy League, a guide to getting into the US's top institutions, and Stephen Friedfeld, the former assistant dean of admissions at Cornell University and associate dean of admissions at Princeton University.
"I couldn't have done this without them," said Ms El Khoury, 18, who has just finished her studies at Dubai American Academy.
"The school was OK, but they basically said I had to find the institution and they'd help me from there.
"Through Intelligent Partners, I was paired with someone with expertise in my field who could help me find the right institution for that subject, right down to the kind of location I wanted, as well as all the application process."
Sanjeev Verma, the director of Intelligent Partners, started the counselling programme last year and now sees the first batch of students on their way.
For most of them, he says, the academic side of the move is the least of students' worries.
"Our counsellors help to realign the differences, explain the realities, the cultural schisms between this part of the world and expectations that the students have," he says.
"The students are not used to making decisions, they've been living at home and it's a big cultural adjustment for them to go to the US. Decision-making is not really a strength of the kids out here. There's always been a safety net."
Although the counselling costs Dh3,500, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the average cost of travelling to study in the US. Compared with a cost that can reach US$250,000 (Dh918,000) over four years, a counsellor's fee is a small price to pay when deciding a student's future, he says
Ms El Khoury agrees: "These counsellors are in the US, they live there, they know what's there. Without it, it would have been so hard."
Sultan Adil, 16, is Emirati and preparing to travel to Boston University where he has accepted a place to study finance, although he hopes to switch to engineering.
For him, studying in the US means opening doors to an international community, as well as broadening his job prospects, even though there is no doubt in his mind he will return to the UAE after his studies.
"Trying to live independently will be the biggest challenge," he says. "Like cooking. I'm a terrible cook."
In addition, he said education in the US is "on a higher level" than his options in the UAE.
The counselling at his school, Al Mawakeb private school, was minimal and so Intelligent Partners was vital in his decision-making.
"They advised me which universities I should and shouldn't apply to based on my scores," he said. "The application process is quite complicated so they helped a lot with that."
Mr Verma said students in the UAE look mostly to the United Kingdom and America to study.
And some of those leaving the UAE to study are also going home. The British student, Kyle Knox, 19, has lived in Abu Dhabi for seven years and will go back to the UK for university in September after leaving Al Khubairat School.
"It's a great university experience there," he said. "You can work while you study, my family is over there and most of my friends are doing the same, or going to America. I want that independence and the chance to stand on my own two feet."