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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Harvard University alumni programme assists underprivileged students 

Professors fly to Dubai this week to help to train students from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East 

From left, Tunde Oyebamiji from Nigeria, Aidana Omurova from Kyrgyzstan and Vijay Kumar from India, at the 2018 Crossroads Emerging Leaders Programme in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National 
From left, Tunde Oyebamiji from Nigeria, Aidana Omurova from Kyrgyzstan and Vijay Kumar from India, at the 2018 Crossroads Emerging Leaders Programme in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National 

When Aidana Omurova was just a child she would often sell apples and apricots to tourists at Issyk-Kul lake in north-eastern Kyrgyzstan.

Soon the 9-year-old discovered she could maximise her profits by getting up early and selling the fruit at breakfast time.

Since then, Ms Omurova, now 21, has had a penchant for figures, and is the first person in her family to go to college.

She graduated with a degree in business administration at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus and this week is attending an emerging leaders programme in Dubai, organised by The Harvard Business Club of GCC.

“Back then, I didn’t know any English but I started learning so I could sell to the tourists,” Ms Omurova said.

“I learned how to be more efficient and studied the habits of customers to understand what was the best time to sell apples.

“From the money I earned, I gave some to my grandmother, some I spent on ice cream and the rest I saved for my tuition fees, stationery and clothes.”

It is the second time the Crossroads Emerging Leaders Programme has run.

Staged by the non-profit Harvard Business Club of GCC, the project aims to provide new opportunities for gifted, underprivileged students from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia who are the first members of their family to attend college.

Ms Omurova said she applied after seeing a post about the programme on Facebook.

Her application was accepted and she is now in Dubai for a week where Harvard academics will teach a five-day curriculum covering science, technology, the arts, mathematics, business and leadership disciplines.

“It's my dream to attend school at Harvard,” she said. “My parents never received a secondary school diploma.

"My biggest passions are finance and accounting and I am planning to work at investment banks and consulting companies.

"We don’t have international companies coming to Kyrgyzstan. This experience can help me set up my own company back home. My dream is to make my mother happy.”

Goulam Amarsy, president of Harvard Business Club of GCC, explained that the premise of the programme was that only nine per cent of Harvard University students come from the Mena region.

By reaching out to underprivileged students, the organisation hopes to change that - boosting access to some of the world’s leading academic courses and helping individuals find internships along the way.

"We find these students to tell them it’s possible for them to study at Harvard University and other top universities,” said Mr Amarsy. “We help them realise their potential.”

Another goal of the programme is to identify 70 to 80 emerging leaders, also from less well-off backgrounds.

They take the top students and bring them to Dubai to participate in classes conducted by Harvard University professors and alumni. This year, the programme received 1,733 applications, of which 71 were accepted.

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"Most universities have a financial aid system which allows anyone who is brilliant to go and study there,” Mr Amarsy said.

“We have a vision that it's all about brains, determination, perseverance. This is the message we want to send across to all these students.

"These 71 students discover what Dubai has done and is doing. Dubai is leading the way in this greater region.

“We chose the city because it is a crossroads of trade, finance and logistics. Dubai is about bold ideas and initiatives that are new."

The Harvard Business Club of GCC also aims to develop a digital platform to deliver the programme to those unable to travel.

The only criteria are that students must be the first in their family to attend college and are able to demonstrate exceptional aptitude and leadership skills.

Vijay Kumar Prakash, an Indian student living in Bangalore, is studying for a bachelor's degree in computer applications, and is the top of his class.

Since being accepted onto the programme he now plans to pursue his post-graduate degree in the United States.

"My parents moved from a rural town in Karnataka in south-west India to Bangalore in search of a better life,” he said.

“But they fell into poverty and found it difficult to provide for the family. I was 4 years old at the time and matured very fast.

"My mother came to know of a school that provides free education but it was a residential school.

“My father was reluctant to send me but for my mother the school represented a ray of hope.

“All my life I had slept on the floor but at the school - called Shanti Bhawan - I got five meals a day and had a bed to sleep in.

"My parents saw that enrolling me at this school was the best decision and that I could lift them out of poverty and debt.”

Now a second-year-student at Christ University in Bangalore, the 19-year-old said his work in the field of computer science was fascinating.

“Gadgets inspire me and I aim to work in a management position at Google and eventually start my own company,” he said.

“At the Crossroads programme, we have met business leaders and entrepreneurs and other influential people.

"It has been an intense week so far for me and this is a unique programme.

“We’re able to see what the classroom environment at Harvard University is like, meet Harvard University professors and we get all this exposure. This programme helps us build a network of valuable contacts.

"I am getting different perspectives and have realised the loopholes in the way that I think.”

Another student in the programme, Tunde Oyebamiji, is studying medicine in Ibadan in southern Nigeria.

He is also chancellor of the Hamstrings Club, a student-run socio-philanthropic club committed to charity and helping the less privileged.

He said he aimed to do a residency training and PhD in Robotics Urology at the University of Chicago, as well as an MBA in Healthcare Innovation at Harvard Business School.

“The experience at the programme is amazing,” he said. “We’re able to experience the Harvard method of teaching through case studies. “It challenges you and makes you think critically. We develop leadership skills.”

Mr Oyebamiji said he was the eldest of five siblings whose parents had battled against the odds to send him to school. He said his father’s ill-health had affected the family.

"They didn’t have a formal education themselves but they still sent me to school,” he said.

“When my father fell sick everything changed. I almost lost hope but thank God for the people around me. I entered university and studied medicine to bring about change and to help people. I want to be a technologically savvy doctor. I want to take a step ahead."