© Guardian photo by Heather Taweel
Omaima Al Shekaili, left, and Maryam Al Sereidi pick cucumbers at Balderston's Farm Market in Stratford during an excursion as part of the English language training program they are attending at UPEI.
It's not often that Prince Edward Island gets compared to New York City, but that's what 17-year-old Maryam Al Sereidi was expecting when she came to the province from the United Arab Emirates to study English.
Al Sereidi was one of 40 girls visiting P.E.I. this month as part of an English language-training program at UPEI.
Last week the girls, whose ages ranged from 16 to 18, were at Balderston's Farm Market in Stratford to pick cucumbers, take a wagon ride and experience part of Island culture.
Al Sereidi said they met a lot of Islanders who were friendly, waved and smiled at them during their visit to P.E.I.
"They love us," she said.
Halifax-based International Language Institute works with UPEI on the almost month-long program that the Abu Dhabi Education Council in the United Arab Emirates pays for.
Students have to meet certain academic performance levels in order to take part in the program, which sees 600 students travel abroad annually, including a group of boys that was taking part in a similar program in Halifax while the girls were in Charlottetown.
The girls, who are all Muslim, have been staying on campus where the university closed off two floors of a residence for them so they can remain away from men during their downtime.
That wasn't an issue during the daytime when they were on a chaperoned excursion to the farm where they listened to instructions on how to pick a cucumber and were in awe of how much bigger the vegetables were in P.E.I. than in their home country.
While learning English is a big part of the course, the girls are also working on their information technology skills while developing their leadership and independence.
That's where the excursions like the trip to the farm come in.
Learning to ride the bus or do laundry, which is a popular activity during the course, are meant to help build independence in girls who live somewhat sheltered lives and come from wealthy families.
In the United Arab Emirates, the girls learned English as their second language starting in kindergarten so they had a good grasp of it once they arrived in P.E.I. and were able to communicate with people they met.
Al Sereidi said she was surprised by how friendly the people have been in P.E.I. because it wasn't what she expected.
"I thought it's like New York or something, everyone's going on their way," she said.
One thing that has taken some getting used to is the weather with summer temperatures that fall short of the highs of 45 C experienced at times in the United Arab Emirates.
Al Sereidi said someone told it would be cold in Canada and they were right.
"To feel cold, to me it's something new," she said.
The Abu Dhabi Educational Council selected UPEI for the program through a tendering process that involved officials from the United Arab Emirates visiting the campus to inspect the facilities.
UPEI will have to go through the tendering process again if it wants to host more students.
Cathy Gillan, UPEI's international development officer, said the university has been doing customized language programs for years, but hasn't worked with the Abu Dhabi Education Council before.
"This is the first time that we've had a group like this," she said.
While the girls will develop their own skills, UPEI is using the program as a way to bring more international students to the university, Gillan said.
She said UPEI is looking at doing more summer programs with a similar age group from different countries because if they have a positive experience at the university and their parents feel it's a safe place the students will be more likely to come back.
"P.E.I. isn't even on some maps so we have to work very hard at the personal connection in order to develop that relationship and trust."