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Business Officer Magazine
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Behind the Scenes in Doha

After signing an agreement in May 2010 with the Supreme Education Council of Qatar to establish the Community College of Qatar, Houston Community College had only a few months to prepare for CCQ’s first students in the fall. The new college’s chief business officer reflects on the fast-track effort.

By Sandra R. Sabo

How's this for a challenge?

Within one month of being hired as a chief business officer, Reagan Romali packed her bags for a two-year stay in Qatar, a country she'd never visited before. In addition to establishing all the administrative systems needed to conduct the business of an educational institution, she had just three months to oversee conversion of a 35,000-square-foot building into a community college campus before the first students arrived. 

 "We did everything from ordering furniture and library books to setting up contracts for custodial services, a bookstore, and a cafeteria," recalls Romali, who led the international project on behalf of the Houston Community College (HCC) System. Under a service agreement with the Qatari government, HCC provides management, staff, and faculty to the new Community College of Qatar (CCQ), located in the city of Doha.

Before heading overseas, Romali helped review the nearly 1,000 applications that poured in to HCC and select the 50 American employees who are "seconded" to CCQ for the 2010–11 and 2011–12 school years. She observes, "When interviewing for staff, you need to make sure that the applicants are not only interested in an overseas experience but also have the resilience to live away from their friends, family, and colleagues.

 "For your part, as the employer, you need to acclimate and orient these employees so they feel supported as they adjust to life overseas," Romali continues. With that in mind, she and the five other employees who constituted the advance team spent the summer learning about their new home when not handling campus logistics. They scouted housing and neighborhoods, grocery stores, and entertainment options to develop orientation sessions for faculty and other staff, who arrived about three weeks before classes began in late September 2010.

Seek Peer Advice

Romali—who reports to both HCC's chancellor in Houston and to CCQ's dean in Doha—recommends asking other business officers for advice before heading abroad. That's something, incidentally, that she did not do because of time constraints.

"We had no choice but to hit the ground running," she says, "but it's ideal to reach out to other colleges or universities that have overseas ventures. Ask them what they gain from the experience and how their students are better off as a result—then think about how those benefits could translate to your organization."

 Four months after opening its first campus, CCQ opened a second location that required a full build-out of 100,000 square feet. The two campuses currently serve about 500 students, with the goal of enrolling 1,500 students by 2015. Because HCC-qualified faculty are teaching HCC's accredited curriculum, students who earn AA or AS degrees at CCQ can transfer to U.S. or other universities as third-year students.

 "It's been a tremendous learning experience, being part of a team that got to shape something new," says Romali of her whirlwind introduction to operating internationally. "The expanded worldview you bring home from another culture and then teach to your American colleagues and students is absolutely invaluable."

SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.