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Two women to President Hagerty's left and Dr. Oksana Hagerty on his right President George Hagerty and Dr. Oksana Hagerty attend the third Learning Difficulties Conference in Sharjah.

By Richard Burnett

More than five years since its work in the United Arab Emirates began, Beacon College has opened a new chapter in its partnership with that country’s leading advocacy group for students with learning differences, President Dr. George Hagerty said recently.

From collaborative training workshops and college transition programs to streaming lectures, Beacon has reached hundreds of UAE students, parents and educators though its 2017 alliance with the Sharjah Center for Learning Difficulties (SCLD) – an agency based in UAE’s 3rd-largest emirate. Beacon is the first U.S. college accredited to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning issues.

Now the Beacon-SCLD team is expected to expand that work to the Sharjah Education Academy, which provides academic and professional training to educators from across the UAE and abroad. It was established in July 2020 by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah and member of the UAE’s Supreme Council.

President Hagerty and his wife Dr. Oksana Hagerty were invited to meet with academy leaders in November while attending the SCLD’s third annual conference on education for students with learning differences. In a two-hour session, they discussed the potential for meaningful collaboration in training educators and parents in meeting the unique needs of the learning-challenged.

This latest joint effort highlights Beacon’s expertise on the international stage and Sharjah’s role as an educational leader in the UAE and beyond, President Hagerty said.

“There is no more striking example than the Beacon-SCLD partnership of how shared knowledge and expertise can advance two committed organizations,” he said. “Though we’re set in two different cultural landscapes and 8,000 miles apart, the reputations of both have grown substantially. Both have been transformed because we understand service organizations are at their best when they find partners with whom to share effective practices.”

At the crossroads of the world

The partnership has flourished in recent years, despite the pandemic, which — like much of education during the lockdown — redirected Beacon’s workshops and lectures to the computer screen. Attending the November conference in Sharjah was seen as an important signal of Beacon’s full commitment to the work there.

“In a sense, it was our post-Covid return to the partnership,” President Hagerty said. “We had done a lot of things virtually and they worked well. But it was important for us to be back there to show them up front that this partnership was really important — a top priority for Beacon and for the Sharjah center.”

The Sharjah center also wanted to make a statement about how important the conference was: It featured opening remarks by His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al-Qasimi, the deputy ruler of Sharjah and president of Sharjah University. Experts and other professionals also attended from around the world, including the U.S., Finland, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain, for research presentations, panel discussions and workshops.

Dr. Oksana Hagerty, dean of Beacon’s Center for Student Success, offered a presentation about best practices in handling the transition to college for students with ADHD and learning differences. She was impressed with the feedback she received from the diverse, global audience, which Beacon’s UAE partners always attract to these events.

“Sharjah and the UAE are like a crossroads of the world. They always bring people together,” she said. “I met people from Finland, from Saudi Arabia, from Bahrain. As diverse as we are, we all talked about the same issues, have the same struggles and goals for education in this area of learning differences. It’s so powerful because you hear from educators all over the world.”

Everything started with a visit

At the center of UAE’s education movement is Her Excellency Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al-Qasimi, a member of Sharjah’s royal family and vice president of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs. As chair of Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services for the past 40 years, she’s been at the forefront of establishing international best practices for helping children with physical and cognitive disabilities.

American-educated, she has traveled the world, visiting schools and organizations, to inform her ideas for helping and educating people with learning disabilities:

“Words cannot describe how rewarding it is when you can see even the smallest progress in a child, a word they can say or a movement they can make,” she told her alma mater, California State University – Chico, when it awarded her an honorary doctorate. “The people and the parents, they made me who I am.” This humility was evidenced as well when this global leader was awarded an honorary doctorate by Beacon at the College’s 2019 Commencement.

In 2016, Sheikha Jameela arrived on Beacon’s campus on a tour of U.S. educational institutions for her research. “Everything we’re doing now started with that visit,” President Hagerty said. “She’s an incredible humanitarian and selfless advocate for people with disabilities. She is an inspiration!”