Over the course of one academic year, I documented the experiences of new first-year male Emirati students at a college of higher education in a rural location of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Using the metaphor of a cultural border crossing, I found that the congruency between the pre-dominantly Arabic life-world associated with Emirati families and government schooling and the largely dominant Western/English language culture in institutes of higher education was broadly related to the students’ self-perceived level of preparedness for academic study and the competence of Emirati students in their second language, English. Four types of border crossing experiences were described – smooth, managed, difficult, and impossible – with easier and smoother crossing experiences associated with close congruency between the two different cultures.
Suffering from the effects of neo-indigeneity, absent parents, poor secondary school experiences, and a disempowering ‘rentier effect’, I found that the failure of male Emirati students to make satisfactory border crossings to college life initiated a process of departure manifested by high absenteeism leading to eventual withdrawal. This occurred more frequently with students placed in the lower levels of an academic bridge program where cultural and linguistic ‘discomfort’ were felt the most - 66% of the new students left college during the year with a staggering 97% drop-out rate in the lowest level alone. Mainly Western teachers who developed a classroom culture based on ‘warm demandingness’ and caring rapport-building appeared to have the most positive impact upon the students. The development of students’ soft-skills in a new experiential learning program was assessed using a Mental Toughness Questionnaire which surprisingly produced lower post-test scores, indicating greater self-awareness and honesty. A key emerging question asks - whose interests are being served (or not) by compelling first-language students to cross cultural borders into higher education colleges and asking them to study using the dominant second-language of English?