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2 sisters from Dubai graduate from COC

Their cousin gets diploma with them

Posted: June 2, 2008 1:03 a.m.
Updated: August 3, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Alia Kalla, Tatiana Oueini and Hanadi Kalla celebrate their recent graduation from College of the Canyons with their family.

 
For many high school graduates in the Santa Clarita Valley, College of the Canyons is often the college of convenience - a two-year academic institution located in Valencia that offers affordable alternatives to earning a degree or certificate and gaining an advantage in the workplace.

Though it is understood that College of the Canyons does not attract students exclusively from the Santa Clarita Valley, many would not expect students from halfway around the world to attend.

Yet at the Cougars' commencement last week, two of the students who walked across the stage to collect their diplomas will be taking their hard-earned degrees back home to Dubai City.

In 2005, Hanadi Kalla, 21, unwillingly left her home in Dubai for the United States in the hope of earning an education. Though she was born in the United States and spent the first seven years of her life here, her family moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1994. There, Hanadi, a Lebanese-Palestinian, bonded with her family, made several new friends and eventually completed high school.

After she graduated high school, she wanted to attend the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, or a local four-year institution in Dubai. But her mother, Rola, insisted that she earn her college diploma in the United States, not the United Arab Emirates.

"An American education has high value in Dubai," Rola said. "To go back there with an American education is golden."

Despite differences in academic systems - there is no equivalent to the community college in Dubai - many employers give high regard to a diploma from an American university.

Hanadi reluctantly caved in to her mother's wishes, enrolling in courses at College of the Canyons with the intent of pursuing a career in film direction.

Shortly thereafter a teary-eyed Hanadi arrived in the Santa Clarita Valley and found a place to stay in Valencia. Starting coursework in the fall semester, she spent her first school year diligently working toward her goals and spending her spare time with family who lived nearby. Homesick and sad, her only consolation was that after her studies in America were complete, she would return to Dubai to build her career and establish her family.

Three years and one Associate's degree later, she still intends to return to Dubai. Yet, thanks to her family members, coming to America to earn an education was the best decision she made.

One of those supportive family members was her cousin, Tatiana Oueini, 20, who lived in Porter Ranch. Both had vivid memories of playing together as children before Hanadi left for Dubai more than a decade earlier.

Being reunited with her cousin upon arrival made Hanadi's transition back to the United States a little bit easier. Then one year later, the transition was made a whole lot smoother where Tatiana, who graduated from El Camino Real High School in 2006, decided to join Hanadi as a student at College of the Canyons.

When Hanadi's younger sister, Alia Kalla, 20, also left Dubai to pursue an American-based education also enrolled at the community college, the circle was complete - all three girls, who were together as children but separate as young adults, reunited in the Santa Clarita Valley to pursue their dreams together.

"Without them, college would not be the same," said Tatiana.

"We're like each other's support system," Hanadi added. "My family was always there to support me. Whenever I wanted to run away, I knew I could always run to them."

Alia agreed that going to school with her sister and cousin helped alleviate the pain she felt from being tens of thousands of miles away from home.

"We were so confused," she said. "If we didn't live it up together, I wouldn't know what to do."

The support system paid dividends, as all three graduated from College of the Canyons last Friday.

Tatiana will pursue a degree in mass communications studies at UCLA; Alia, too, is heading to Westwood to study architecture. Hanadi will be travelling a few miles further to the east, where she will study film at California State University, Los Angeles.

While Tatiana will remain in the United States after graduating from UCLA, Hanadi and Alia will return to Dubai to help bridge the cultural gap between East and West.

"A lot of students back there think America is full of crime, war and high education everywhere," Hanadi said. "Yet a lot of students here do not understand much about Arabs. One time, I was asked if I rode a camel to school."

To help bridge the cultural gap, Hanadi hopes to direct entertaining yet educational movies to help both East and West understand each other better. Alia plans to use her artistic abilities and Western education to influence architectural design in the Middle East.

Here in the United States, Tatiana hopes to reach out to Americans as a Middle Eastern liaison and communicator with a non-profit organization.

"Because of our backgrounds, we have a perspective," Tatiana said.

"Many of our fellow students at COC never left the Santa Clarita Valley. Yet, our cultural background helped open our understanding, and we're trying to use that for the better."

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