2020 Virtual Program Orientation
“This next year will be a defining moment in your lives, and I encourage you to both acknowledge the challenges, and also maximize the opportunities, of our new reality. The KGSP will be there here to support and encourage you every step of the way.”- Saham Al-Husseini, Director, Undergraduate & Scholarship Programs at KAUST
As a component of its extensive onboarding program, the KGSP has welcomed each new class of admitted students to the KAUST campus for an intensive, multi-day scholarship event prior to their departure to the U.S. This “pre-departure orientation” served to provide a holistic introduction to scholarship components, management, expectations, and opportunities, and establish an early connection between new students and KAUST faculty, research, and programs.
Of course, the 2020 event to welcome the KGSP’s 12th cohort of new students needed to be different—just one of many repercussions the coronavirus pandemic had on students’ academic plans, and one that the KGSP pivoted to address. Not only were travel and large gatherings prohibited, but the very concept of “pre-departure” had changed, as the vast majority of new students were to initially remain in Saudi Arabia to start their new programs virtually. This necessitated the development of a new type of student event that would maintain the same high level of information sharing, engagement, and excitement through an online format. The result was the Scholarship’s first-ever KGSP Virtual Program Orientation, or VPO.
Hosted over the course of three days in late July, the 2020 VPO utilized video conferencing and a specially-customized virtual conference website and mobile app, Whova, to provide an interactive platform through which students attended event sessions (over 18 offered!), shared comments and questions, and engaged with one another—over 140 new students, 20 current KGSP students and alumni, 30 staff members, and six members of KAUST faculty and leadership were in attendance! Under the theme of “Strongest Together”, the VPO highlighted the importance of combining individual perseverance with the tools and expertise offered by the KGSP.
Programmatic sessions were designed to introduce new students to the KGSP, emphasizing not only the responsibilities inherent to joining such a prestigious scholarship, but also the multitude of support offered within it. These included sessions about the KGSP’s history and mission, overview of programmatic policies, expectations, and benefits, and key components of the Program’s advising, enrichment, and placement programs. New students were also introduced to the team of dedicated KGSP staff members providing holistic and in-depth support throughout each student’s academic journey.
KGSP Student and Alumni Engagement
As highlighted by the event’s theme, a strong network of support is essential to success as a KGSP student. As such, a primary goal of the VPO was to introduce new students their peer community through icebreaker activities, teambuilding exercises, and formal and informal Q&A opportunities.
Peer Student Guides (PSGs) – current KGSP students selected to assist with new student orientation—provided valuable programmatic and academic advice, as well as hosted informal game nights to further facilitate the informal community building amongst the newest KGSP students. During the “Enrichment Panel”, new students learned about research projects current KGSP students and alumni are currently working—including those with KAUST professors. The panel also shared stories highlighting the significance of taking advantage of opportunities presented to them as KGSP students, revealing the obvious impact that their choices in the KGSP have had on reaching their personal goals.
KAUST President Dr. Tony F. Chan warmly welcomed new students with an address highlighting his own similar educational experience leaving his country of birth to study in the U.S, assuring them that by seizing the opportunity presented by the KGSP, they will gain the knowledge to achieve their personal goals, and the talent and skill to contribute to the development of Saudi Arabia. Although KAUST does not have a formal undergraduate program, he emboldened KGSP students to see themselves as “KAUST undergraduates”, connecting them to the world-renown university and its mission to train, educate, and inspire generations of top scientists and engineers.
With the pandemic impacting the world and on everyone’s minds, KAUST’s Director of Undergraduate and Scholarship Programs, Saham Al-Husseini, praised Cohort 12 for their determination to continue to pursue their education despite such conditions, stating, “You should all feel an enormous amount of pride to have made it today. This year’s applicant pool was our strongest yet, and the competition was fierce. Your presence here confirms not only your academic talent and potential but also those intangible but no less important traits like perseverance and commitment.” As the students embark in one of the most defining moments of their lives, Mr. Al-Husseini urged them to maximize the opportunities provided to them.
The KGSP fosters active engagement with KAUST professors through on-campus research opportunities, further integrating students with KAUST and exposing them to contemporary research projects. At the VPO, Virginia Unkefer, an Engagement and Outreach Consultant for KAUST, discussed the many groundbreaking research taking place at the university. These initiatives were further explored in the “KAUST Research Spotlight” session, where students heard from KAUST’s Dr. Samir Hamdan, Dean of Biological and Environmental Sciences and Engineering Division, to learn about his role on the Rapid Research Response Team, KAUST’s team of faculty working to combat the spread of COVID-19. They also heard from Dr. Jorge Gason, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Catalysis Center, whose groundbreaking work on the Circular Carbon Economy is playing a key role in Vision 2030.
To conclude the VPO, Dr. Najah Ashry, Senior Associate to the President and Vice President of Strategic National Advancement at KAUST, congratulated students for their achievements thus far, while also encouraged them “to step up to this challenge, and truly understand that commitment, dedication, and self-discipline, in addition to academic excellence, are vital to your success and to your future contribution to the Kingdom.”