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North Park Alumnus Plays Key Role in Educating Arab Students


DOHA, QATAR (February 28, 2008) – Charles (Chuck) E. Thorpe says his education at North Park University was important to him becoming a leader in developing American style education in the Middle East.

Thorpe, who graduated from North Park in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in natural science, is the dean of the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Qatar and has led development of the school from the ground up. The University offers degrees in business and computer science that are equivalent to any earned in the United States.

The New York Times recently featured him as part of a two-installment series about the globalization of American universities that are establishing campuses around the world, including throughout the Persian Gulf.

"The further I go in my career, the more I appreciate what North Park taught me," Thorpe says. "My science background taught me the value of careful experiments and logical thinking. But beyond that, my liberal arts education taught me a lot about how to respect other people and work with them, how to think about the historical and political context of a new situation, how to speak and listen carefully, and how to value my own faith while appreciating others."

Thorpe's interests first developed during what might be considered an extended field-education experience. The son of Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Roger and Eileen Thorpe, he grew up in the Congo.

CMU is one of five major universities in recent years to establish campuses in Education City, an area set aside by the Qatar government for schools to bring American higher education to the nation. Other universities with campuses in Education City are Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Cornell University in New York and Texas A & M. Northwestern University will soon establish a school of journalism.

Providing that education is important to the future of Qatar and the United States, Thorpe says. "Qatar is a bridge country at a very important time, and anything we can do to bring a little more understanding between the Arab world and the U.S. is vitally important," he explains.

So far, the work is paying off. "We have opened a flow of people and ideas between Doha and Pittsburgh, Qatar regularly hosts visits from westerners such as Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy — and non-westerners including Kofi Annan and the president of Turkey."

Formerly the director of the Robotics Institute at CMU in Pittsburgh, Thorpe says he also has been in for quite an education. "I have learned a tremendous amount about all kinds of things in the university that I had never encountered before, from how to do undergraduate admission in a situation where the parents don't speak English, to setting up a robotics lab in a country with no Radio Shacks."

Re-establishing the advanced education is fitting for a region of the world that once was a leader in science. "The Arab world was famous for its science a thousand years ago," Thorpe says. "They were advancing chemistry and astronomy and medicine and mathematics while Europe was living through the dark ages. Then they lost their momentum."

That nation's future also hinges on the higher learning. Thorpe notes that the country's history of supplying oil is far more recent — dating back to the mid 1950s. It has become wealthy only in the last 15 years as it developed natural gas production.

"The Qatari leadership decided that they wanted to invest their income in health care and education, to bring their people into the knowledge-based economy of the future," Thorpe says. "It's a wise decision. They have vast reserves of natural gas, but not unlimited."

Thorpe likens the situation to Pittsburgh 100 years ago, when the city was booming based on the singular steel industry and attracting immigrants from all over the world. "Andrew Carnegie, who was the richest man in the world, decided to invest in setting up a school for the steel workers' sons and coal miners' daughters," he says.

"That school became Carnegie Mellon University, and is one of the anchors of Pittsburgh today, long after the steel industry is gone. The Emir of Qatar wants us to have the same effect in his country."

Bringing American higher education to the Middle East has presented its challenges. "The biggest challenge we face is finding well-prepared students," Thorpe says. "Qatar is reforming education at all levels at the same time. In K-12, they are moving from all-Arabic instruction to a mix of Arabic and English, they are updating their curriculum, and they are moving to a charter school system. At the same time, they are bringing in universities like Carnegie Mellon with rigorous undergraduate programs, and they are working with us to start postgraduate education and research programs."

Because the degree is equivalent to one earned in the United States, students must acquire the same skills required to graduate from Carnegie Mellon's campus in Pittsburgh. "So we look for smart, hard-working high school students, and then we work hard with them in a variety of ways to prepare them for the challenge of a Carnegie Mellon education," Thorpe says. "We run summer camps for high school students, and computer programming competitions, we participate in a 13th-grade program for students to get intensive math and English instruction, and we provide extra tutoring to help our freshmen get used to the fast pace of their college experience."

Thorpe is proud of how well the students have responded. "Of our first entering class of 41, we expect to have 37 walk through graduation this spring at the end of their fourth year," he says.

Thorpe's family has had to make its own adjustments, but they have made new friends and attend a local church. "We've learned to eat new foods — lots of good Arabian dishes — but we're also able to find most things we would eat in the U.S."

He has been able to watch Qatar residents be introduced to some of the sweetest pleasures America has to offer. "They just opened a Krispy Kreme, and the line was over a kilometer long the first day."

Christianity is openly practiced but is a small minority in the Muslim nation. "My Muslim friends are very concerned for my eternal salvation, and feel sorry for me not being one of them."

Thorpe, who remains a member of Stoneridge Covenant Church in Allison Park, Penn., says that whatever adjustments his family has had to make, they don't compare to those made by his parents, who first traveled to Congo more than 40 years ago.

"They had to spend a year in language study — we have been asked to work in English," he explains, ticking off the contrasts. "They had to pack four years worth of food and clothing — we can go to one of several malls, or to the fresh fruit and vegetable souq. They were gone from the U.S. for four years at a time — I'm back on business trips several times a year. They had to type letters on aerograms, which might take a month to get to family — we send email or pick up the internet phone."

No doubt about it, he says. "We're living a much easier life than they had!"

(SF)