For expat teens in the UAE, leaving school for university often means leaving home and venturing overseas to live independently for the first time. This is a significant source of concern for many families, and understandably so; suddenly managing one’s own finances, personal safety, schedules, transport and more at the tender age of 18 is not so much a next step but a huge leap.
According to the whichschooladvisor.com Happiness Survey 2021, the UAE is increasingly viewed by parents as providing a great quality of life for their children (an enormous 26% of respondents said that this was the single biggest reason they had chosen to continue living in the UAE). However, the most cited worry regarding the long term success of children after growing up in the UAE was that they will lack the self-dependence they will need when they leave home and the UAE.
How then can parents and schools best prepare teens for the big bad world of adulthood, moving overseas, and navigating university life? We spoke to UAE parents and education leaders to explore this concern in detail.
A common concern raised amongst the parents we spoke to was their teenagers’ lack of awareness with regards to personal safety and security. With the UAE often rated as one of the world’s safest countries to live and listed as the ‘safest country in the world to walk at night’ in 2021, parents expressed concerns that growing up in the country can mean teens are ‘sheltered’ from the harshness of the wider world. Dubai-based mother, Navina Das said:
“My daughter has lived in Dubai since she was ten years old. At 18 now, I feel like she has experienced a very nice but ‘soft’ version of the world. She has never really experienced anything being stolen, she’s never had to look over her shoulder in the street. I’ve loved the safe childhood the UAE has given her but now she’s very unsuspicious of people, probably very naïve.”
Mr Peter Rowlands, Head of Secondary at Raffles International School, expressed a similar concern:
“Here in the UAE, we live in a very safe and trustworthy society. Students are used to leaving expensive phones and laptops around, with a minimal risk of theft. As such, students are often not skilled in managing their personal security.”
While frightening a teenager with stories of attacks and burglaries before they embark on a new chapter of their life is perhaps ill-advised, parents can support their awareness and skills in keeping safe by discussing risks that they are likely to face, such as the dangers of walking alone at night, the risk of theft of expensive electronics items, and the need to keep doors locked in student accommodation.
Abu Dhabi-based father, Mark McDonald, told us what had worked well for his son:
“Once my son had made clear he wanted to study in the UK, we made plans to visit several times during the year prior to his move, visiting universities, using the underground, and even visiting a student union bar. These visits opened up a lot of conversations of what he and I needed to think about so that he faced fewer surprises. It also made me realise how little he actually knew about life in the UK, even though we’re British and had been back to visit family every summer.”
Another often referenced concern is that expat children in the UAE are not familiar with doing things for themselves. Preferring the Mum-and-Dad-taxi-service to public transport and being able to order just about anything with the click of a button, UAE teens may not have opportunity to develop the skills needed to navigate their way around an unfamiliar city and solve practical problems themselves.
Mr Ben Parkes, Deputy Head of the Senior School at Kent College Dubai, expressed a view that the UAE can actually provide the perfect environment for developing independence:
“We live in a country where parents can feel their children are safe and looked after. The UAE can provide an environment for young people to express their independence safely. We have a responsibility to use the tools the UAE provides to develop our students into young adults ready for the next step.”
Indeed, this element of UAE expat life is perhaps one that is unconsciously chosen by families for ease, rather than through necessity. As Mr Parkes suggests, the UAE can act as a safe training ground for young people in gaining skills in independence rather than preventing this development. Mr Parkes also highlighted the opportunities provided by Kent College that support the development of skills in independence :
"School trips can allow students to gain experience being away from home while learning about a vast range of cultures and practising new skills. As a school we take advantage of this, providing an extensive extensive range of trips, both locally and abroad. Likewise our Duke of Edinburgh award scheme provides ample opportunities for students to problem solve independently and develop confidence."
Djamel Khadir, Head of Year 12 at Nord Anglia International School Dubai, noted the positives of out-of-school experiences also:
"Our sixth form residential trips have seen students go to Thailand to complete elements of their IB courses, whilst engaging with local community projects such as building schools and supporting animal sanctuaries. We recognise the importance of these type of experiences and how these make our young people more rounded and aware individuals."
While most university freshers have limited experience in managing their own finances, it could be argued that UAE expat teens will likely have had less opportunity in this area than most. With little opportunity for weekend employment alongside their studies (recent changes to employment law may change this), most UAE teens will not have had their own income and may have less of an appreciation of their expenses. Taking care of rent, bills, groceries, and a social life may feel like a major leap.
Mr Peter Rowlands, Head of Secondary at Raffles International School, highlighted the newness of managing personal finances for many teens:
“A large number of students are not used to managing their own money. They may find it challenging to ensure what they have lasts the year and that essentials for university life are costed and allowed for.”
He went on to explain that seniors at Raffles International School are provided with classes on this subject following their final exams:
"We put on a series of modules for students to support them through to their next steps. These include 'Managing My Money', 'University Skills' as well as courses to get students a head start on their chosen field."
Of course, it isn't all doom, gloom and fear for expat teens venturing into university life overseas. Parents and educators told us of how living in the UAE also equips young people for this transition, in ways that their counterparts who have grown up in their home countries may not have the benefit of.
Dubai-based mother Andrea Gomez told us:
"My kids were so much more aware of the wider world when they went to university after living here. They could relate to so many different people from different places and didn't stick to one social group, the way I did at their age. This confidence and comfort being around different people that they have came from living in the UAE, I have no doubt about that."
Djamel Khadir, Head of Year 12 at Nord Anglia International School Dubai, expressed a similar sentiment:
"Students growing up in Dubai are generally well travelled and attend culturally diverse schools enabling them to be globally minded and familiar with different religious and cultural norms and values. This should allow students to easily make friends when they leave home, which is important to avoid experiencing social isolation and loneliness."
Indeed, this global mindedness that living in the UAE can provide is rated as the greatest benefit to bringing up children in the country by parents, according to the whichschooladvisor.com Happiness Survey 2021, followed up the range of opportunities for children to follow individual interests, and the quality of education in the UAE. It is clear from these results that the benefits of growing up in the UAE are significant. While certain aspects of UAE expat life are arguably a double edged sword, parents and educators do have the tools to prepare children and utilise this unique upbringing as a strength rather than a drawback, paving the way for their journey into adulthood.