An adventure of a lifetime

Aug 06, 2019
Caroline McGroary went to Riyadh for four months, but stayed for six years – and her adventure isn’t over yet.

How did you end up volunteering to go overseas?

In August 2013, while working for Dublin City University (DCU) as a Lecturer in Accounting, I had the opportunity to travel to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia after DCU signed a partnership with Princess Norah Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU). PNU is the country’s foremost female educational institution and the largest women’s-only university in the world, with capacity for 60,000 students. DCU established a division of DCU Business School within PNU, delivering two undergraduate degree programmes in Finance and Marketing and one postgraduate degree programme in Business Administration. Eager to be part of this project, I volunteered as a member of an initial team of four DCU staff who relocated to Riyadh to initiate the collaboration.

What did the role entail?

My initial four-month appointment was as Programme Director at PNU and I also held the position of Lecturer in Accounting, Finance and Business Strategy. The task of establishing a women’s business school in a foreign country was in many ways similar to a start-up business venture. Leaving the cultural differences and language barrier aside, we assumed responsibility for all business school operations as well as lecturing responsibilities. We were required to train our Saudi academic colleagues and to liaise with the senior management of PNU, on behalf of DCU, on a regular basis. Navigating the challenges of the first semester required immense teamwork and organisation. At the end of the term, I took the decision to extend my contract for the remainder of the academic year. Six years on, having overseen the graduation of over 500 students with DCU degrees, I am still living in Riyadh and embracing the opportunities and experiences that this collaboration continues to offer.

What in particular struck you about life in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia is routinely portrayed in mainstream Western media in a negative light, primarily due to its strict legal, religious, cultural and societal norms. However, the experience of living in Riyadh at a time when the country is undergoing dramatic economic and societal change has given me a very different perspective on life here. Through my position, I’ve both educated and worked alongside Saudi women and I’ve witnessed first-hand my Saudi students and colleagues undergo increased empowerment and social participation, contributing fully to the development of their country.

How did you benefit as a result?

While there are many highlights from my time here so far, there are a number of key experiences that have benefited me both professionally and personally. First, the most notable has been educating young, bright, tenacious Saudi women, which is an extremely rewarding experience. Second, participating in initiatives such as setting up the Irish Business Network in Saudi Arabia (IBN-SA) in partnership with the Irish Ambassador, His Excellency Tony Cotter has served as an important platform for my professional engagement with the Irish business community, the Saudi business community and other communities in the Kingdom. This has led to many other opportunities, such as working with high-profile companies and governmental bodies on projects that have had educational, economic and social impact, with much of this work achieving international recognition.

You took up some non-profit work while in Riyadh. What was your experience of volunteering overseas?

Since moving to Saudi Arabia, I have actively sought out ways to give back to the local Saudi and Irish communities. I am one of the founding members of the IBN-SA and I volunteer with the local Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) club (Naomh Alee), teach Irish dance classes, engage in charity events – including the ‘Riyadh Darkness into Light’ event which raised funds for Pieta House in Ireland – and regularly create opportunities for my students to engage in local community events, such as the promotion of physical activity among their local communities and engaging with local charities.

What advice would you give someone who is considering moving overseas?

The prospect of moving overseas can be very daunting. However, my time in Riyadh has taught me to be open-minded about new experiences and to use challenges as a platform for growth and development. Personally, my time living in Saudi Arabia – one of the most conservative countries in the world – has been the experience of a lifetime. Not only has it allowed me be part of a historical movement centred around the empowerment of women through education, it has also afforded me the opportunity to immerse myself in a new culture, contribute to the local community and to travel extensively. The experience has enabled me to meet people from so many different backgrounds and cultures, which has been an incredible personal as well as professional journey. For these reasons, I’m a strong advocate of gaining international experience and I actively encourage anyone who has this opportunity to embrace it.
You can read more about living and working overseas in Chartered Accountants Abroad, the publication from Accountancy Ireland for Chartered Accountants Ireland members abroad.