A group of students from the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in a study abroad program that took them to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Texas A&M University has one of the most popular education abroad programs. According to a recent Open Doors report from the Institute for International Education, more students at Texas A&M study abroad than students from any other college, university or institute of higher learning.
Fourteen students, including two student-athletes, along with professor Donna Lee Sullins, Ed.D., Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences, RPTS, and Kristi Mejias, assistant athletics director, Texas A&M Athletics, were part of the Education Abroad experience.
Only one of the participants had previously been to Qatar or elsewhere in the Middle East.
Selecting the students and preparing to leave
“We had more than 30 applicants for this study abroad opportunity,” Sullins said. “When applications went out, students were asked what their professional career goals were and how this study abroad would support those intentions.”
She said several students seeking the Professional Event Management Certificate in RTPS and several students studying sports management at the Texas A&M School of Education and Human Development made clear connections to their desire to learn more about the behind-the-scenes roles of event managers at major sporting events.
“This professional drive made them ideal selections for this study abroad opportunity,” Sullins said. “However, selected students from other parts of the university made strong cases for why exposure to many international populations in one location supported their desire to serve in public health roles or international work in other fields.”
All students were required to take a prerequisite course called Planning and Implementation of Events and Programs, RPTS 311, before traveling to Qatar. This course taught the students the fundamentals of program and event planning and management.
Furthermore, each student received financial assistance from the college’s Dean’s Office and RPTS. Additionally, staff from Texas A&M Athletics donated items for the group to give as gifts to people in Qatar who helped them with the trip.
“In Qatar, staff from Texas A&M University at Qatar were instrumental in assisting with scheduling in-country cultural experiences,” Sullins said. “And the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy in Qatar helped get our group set up with our volunteering schedules.”
Getting settled in Qatar
The group arrived in Qatar in the early morning of Dec. 8. For the next 12 days, the students lived in residence halls that were provided to them free of cost by the Qatar Foundation at Education City, located in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Education City was built by the Qatari government to bring universities from around the world into the country. It is a “city within a city” with amenities and services for students from Qatar and abroad.
“We checked into our dorms and settled in for our first night in Qatar,” said Courtney Smith, one of the students working toward her professional event management certificate. “The dorms were awesome. We had bunk beds and even a small kitchen and living area.”
The study abroad students were given a cultural orientation to help reduce misunderstandings and provide an initial cultural introduction. Participants were also expected to learn some essential words and phrases in Arabic.
“Although the coverage of the Middle East in Western news outlets often portrays conflict and social upheaval, Qatar is known internationally as one of the safest countries in the world,” Sullins said. “We found the people to be very welcoming and hospitable to their many guests from around the world.”
She noted there were also millions of visitors from throughout the world in Qatar for the World Cup, which provided many additional opportunities for students to learn about different countries and cultures. Qatar is populated by over 80% expatriate residents, leading to many great conversations on the comparisons of living in their home as compared to Qatar.
Volunteering at the FIFA Fan Festival
After arriving in Doha, the students picked up their accreditation vouchers and volunteer uniforms at the Doha Exhibition Center. In addition to connecting with volunteers from across the world, they received a complete uniform kit containing Adidas shirts, shoes, jackets, wind pants, accessories and hats.
The Texas A&M group worked volunteer shifts at the FIFA Fan Festival. The Fan Festival is the center of World Cup activities and is free to all match ticket holders. Located in Al Bidda Park, the Fan Festival has amenities such as games, food, cultural activities and live entertainment, including popular Middle Eastern artists and internationally known DJs. Additionally, the venue streamed matches for the ultimate fan experience outside of being in one of the stadiums.
“Due to crowd crush concerns, site coordinators decided to cap capacity at the Fan Festival at 40,000 people,” Sullins said. “On multiple nights we were there, they had to close the gates and turn people away, sometimes with 40,000 people inside and another 40,000 outside.”
The group was assigned jobs within specific zones of the festival. Some students worked the lost and found booth, tracking items as they were brought in and reuniting them with their owners. Others worked the accessibility towers, helping people with disabilities and other health needs access an elevated seating platform so they could view the performers or soccer matches. Still, others worked around the main stage and screens, helping with crowd control and answering questions, along with directing festival goers to restrooms, food and beverage outlets and the exit.
Both tangible and intangible takeaways
Sullins said each night, when the students checked in for their eight-hour shifts, they were given a thank-you gift for volunteering and a meal ticket to use in the workforce cafeteria. At the conclusion of their shifts, the FIFA organization gave them each a smartwatch as a final token of appreciation.
Volunteers who had completed four shifts by a specific date were gifted complimentary tickets to the third-place match between Morocco and Croatia. This offer gave every person on the trip a chance to go inside a stadium for at least one match.
Sullins said that as part of the entire study abroad experience, she wanted students to get experience working in event management, especially working with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
“We wanted them to get some experience in assessing risk, solving problems and putting out timely information, as well as identifying what improvements might be made,” she said. “And, not only did they get that experience, but they did so in a once-in-a-lifetime way.”
Other study abroad activities
Along with their curriculum and volunteer work at the World Cup, study abroad students also experienced the local culture. Some of the more notable experiences included a mosque tour, camel rides and all-terrain vehicle rides in the nearby desert.
“We had to hold onto the camels for dear life to get on and off of them,” said study abroad participant Camila Brigueda. “After that, we went on a car ride through the desert to reach the top of the dunes and take scenic pictures. It was a very bumpy but fun ride!”
Sullins said it was important to provide the study abroad participants with authentic “extracurricular” experiences while in Qatar.
“Students enjoyed a traditional Dhow boat cruise in Doha Bay and the Persian Gulf, seeing the city skyline lit up at night while eating traditional food grilled on the boat,” Sullins said. “They also practiced the art of negotiation in Souq Wakif, where traditional items as well as souvenirs of all kinds, could be purchased in a market with traditional architecture. They also saw art from around the world at the Museum of Islamic Art, which helped them appreciate how history, culture and religion were intertwined for the local people.”
She said that experience, coupled with being able to engage with people from so many other countries around the world coming to the same place to work on a major global event was a spectacular opportunity.
“Seeing others bring their work experiences and perspectives to successfully work with and manage a workforce from around the world with different preferences and understandings was truly remarkable,” she said. “It gave the students a great chance to learn through doing, which provides more impactful learning experiences than classroom learning alone.”
Students also saw some local luxury as they toured event venues at the Four Seasons, Doha, recently ranked the No. 1 hotel in the Middle East, and the Ritz Carlton Sharq Village, where they learned about venue uses and staff requirements to support an event.
Students receive ‘celebrity treatment’
One of the many surprises some students had during their study abroad experience was being treated like celebrities.
Some study abroad students were interviewed by and videotaped by four different television outlets at the first World Cup match they attended – Brazil vs. Croatia.
“They all asked us different questions about our predictions of the outcome of the game,” said Hannah Ager, an undergraduate studying sports management. “Croatia ended up winning in penalty kicks. I can easily say that being interviewed and attending that match in person were a few of the most incredible experiences of my entire life.”
Mark Martinez, who is studying sports management, was also given celebrity treatment by being allowed to visit the Fox headquarters in Doha to watch their broadcast of the World Cup.
“I was right behind Clint Dempsey and fellow broadcast members, and I was even on TV a few times,” Martinez said. “It was so exciting to hear from my friends and family back home and have them all tell me I was on TV. I am beyond thankful for the opportunity I have had here.”
The Fox Sports Studio also allowed Brigueda to watch the final game of the World Cup at their facility.
“It was honestly a great experience to watch it there since there were a lot of Argentinian fans, and I was rooting for Argentina,” Brigueda said.
Lessons from the study abroad experience
Study abroad participant Hudson Brown, a senior in RPTS, said the experience made him think of how much more of the world he has yet to see.
“It was an incredible way to experience other world cultures in a place that we may never have gone had it not been for this unique study abroad opportunity,” Brown said.
Sullins said one of the best lessons the students learned in their study abroad experience was to investigate for themselves about people or places that initially seem different. She also said the FIFA World Cup experience provided a “reality check” about putting on a major event.
“I think we sometimes put large organizations like FIFA on a pedestal because it can often look like every event they produce is error-free,” she said. “But it was very beneficial for the students to see that any scale or scope of event has problems that need to be solved.”
She also noted that this was likely the first time all the students were working with a team comprised of such a large diversity of countries of origin, religions, first languages and customs.
“Spending time in Qatar during the World Cup was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Bradley Burroughs, program coordinator in the First-Year Experience Office for Student Success at Texas A&M and an RPTS doctoral student. “I was thoroughly surprised with how beautiful the area is and how intentional the people were to ensure we are making the most of our time here. It really has been an incredible opportunity to see this part of the world, and it has been an experience I will cherish forever.”