Not the Saudi Arabia You Hear About: The Students Abroad Factor – Hausheer

Published: February 26, 2014

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Editor’s Note:

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program has enabled over 145,000 young Saudi Arabians to travel overseas for higher education opportunities and experiences. The majority of those students have chosen the United States as the destination for their undergraduate and graduate programs. Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith, while serving in Riyadh, addressed the importance of the program to KASP students in America and to the United States’ role in their education:

“I would like to salute Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for his vision and stewardship of this forward-looking educational program.. ..We are honored that you have entrusted us with your most valuable assets: your sons and daughters. We feel honored, but also feel we are shouldering a weighty responsibility — a responsibility that we don’t take lightly. I thank you for your trust in the United States. My pledge to you is we will never betray this trust, and we will treat your children with the same care we do our own..

“..I sincerely hope you have had a rewarding experience in the US and that you got the quality education you came for and you deserve. But I also hope that you have made American friends, enjoyed your time here, that you have made the time to explore and ask questions. I hope you have been good ambassadors for your great country. We are all part of the exchange between our two nations. This exchange works because it is a two-way exchange. While you may be leaving our country this month, I know that you will always be the bridges and the bonds that will draw our countries together, and for that I can’t be more grateful.”

The success of the KASP in the United States has been a source of pride for Saudi Arabians and their American hosts, and SUSRIS has provided regular updates about the program through articles, interviews and special reports. In August we talked with Dawn Kane of the English Language Center at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Ms. Kane reflected on her experiences with Saudi Arabian students learning English as part of the scholarship program and the importance of personal connections and support that are elements of success for her students.

People Dawn Kane Drexel KASP StudentsDrexel’s Dawn Kane and her English language students.

Today we are pleased to provide for your consideration an article by Stefanie Hausheer about her direct experiences with Saudi KASP students in the United States. Ms. Hausheer, an assistant director for programs at the Washington-based Atlantic Council Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, shares her insights and perspectives on the challenges and rewards of the program and offers a number of thoughtful recommendations for improving the program with the objective of making the most of the investment for the Saudi students and their American hosts.

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Not the Saudi Arabia You Hear About: The Students Abroad Factor
Stefanie A. Hausheer

Saudi Arabia is best known in some circles for its resistance to women driving and its pervasive religious police, both signs of a deeply conservative society. It made news in October by snubbing a seat on the UN Security Council in protest of the West’s inaction on important Middle East issues. These images of Saudi Arabia, however, are at odds with a growing new reality: the profusion of Saudi youth who leave Riyadh, Jeddah, and elsewhere to study abroad, open to living in and learning about people and societies dramatically different from their own. They are beneficiaries of a scholarship program that grew from the 2005 President Bush-King Abdullah discussions on how to improve Saudi-US relations.

Over 100,000 Saudi young people are currently studying in American colleges and English language schools (ESL) according to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission. The Institute of International Education’s recent “Open Doors” report reveals a 30 percent increase in Saudi enrollment at U.S. universities in 2013 from the previous year. This massive influx of Saudi students is bound to have an impact when they return home. Indeed, this population is seen by many in the Kingdom as a positive force that will inevitably catalyze change in the conservative society, as noted by U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith in congratulatory remarks to last year’s graduating class, “They have received a world-class education. As they now come home they will have the opportunity to shape the future development of the Kingdom and the future of the Saudi-American friendship.”

People Saudi Students 15-300x225 KASP

The large number of Saudis in American cities and campuses represents an unprecedented opportunity for cross-cultural exchange. Yet as my conversations with students, administrators, and teachers revealed, foreign students (and Saudi students in particular) face a number of challenges from the moment they enter the United States. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program is set to accept new applicants until 2020, so this significant cohort of young people will be in the United States until at least 2025. It may be longer since King Abdullah has already extended the program three times.

The U.S. and Saudi governments, ESL centers, and universities need to do a better job strategically marshaling resources and developing targeted programs to ensure that Saudis are well prepared to have the best experience possible in the United States. In this way Saudi students can leave with a first-rate education, a deeper understanding of American culture and values, and lifelong friendships. Moreover, Americans will benefit more from interactions and friendships with the young Saudi “ambassadors.”

First Contact: ESL Classrooms

In part because of my interest in the Middle East, over the years I have lived with a number of Saudi students. I enjoyed practicing Arabic with them and I believe they benefited from living with a native English speaker. Moreover, we all benefited from sharing our cultures. I remember well the day I picked up nineteen-year-old Waleed from the airport several years ago; he was to be one of my roommates. Grinning from ear to ear, he chanted, “USA, USA!” enthusiastically as soon as we got outside the terminal. He was excited to be here in part because of the freedom that those three letters represented, even if that phrase was virtually all the English he knew. After several months of studying at a nearby ESL center and forced practice from living with an American day in and day out, he gradually learned the language. But it was his ESL classes that were his first exposure to American life.

People Saudi Students 34-300x292 KASP

Unfortunately, ESL classes are not usually well-equipped landing zones for the increasing numbers of foreign students that attend U.S. universities. Tamara, a superb ESL teacher, bemoans the lack of resources and decent pay for hard-working teachers who are often the first point of contact for international students. She worked tirelessly to plan lessons and organize cultural activities outside the classroom such as rodeo visits and interfaith dialogue with a local priest. However, ESL teachers are not compensated adequately for their efforts, making it difficult to attract teachers who can offer the best classroom experience.

Some Saudi students in the King Abdullah Scholarship Program have never traveled to the United States before and know little English, so rigorous ESL classes are an essential component of their path to college preparation. Moreover, it is only by learning English that they can connect fully to American culture and people. With the influx of foreign students who need quality English instruction at a level that will help them develop college-level writing skills, ESL centers need to do more to recruit top-notch educators and compensate them fairly. Better pay and improved work conditions may not happen right away, but we need to at least begin a broader conversation about the importance of ESL centers and the need to recruit and retain excellent teachers.

The payoff should be obvious to the institutions of higher learning. Beyond the tremendous benefits of building bridges between Americans and foreign communities, there are the practical considerations of the tens of billions of dollars international students bring into the U.S. economy. The Department of Commerce put the figure at $22.7 billion in 2011 and Saudi student enrollments, about 5 percent of the international student pool according to “Open Doors,” has steadily increased.

People Saudi Students 36-300x198 KASP

Challenging Traditional Gender Roles

Women make up 43 percent of all Saudi students in the United States. Stereotypes about abaya-wearing women covered head-to-toe in black who cannot drive do not apply to many of these students. Although some struggle to maintain the conservative religious identity that is easy to cultivate in Saudi Arabia—prayer rooms are difficult to come by on some campuses—life in the United States gives them the chance to further develop their intellectual identity. In fact, both teachers and students insist that women often outperform men in terms of grades as well as overall motivation. The academic achievement of Saudi women in the United States underscores their desire to pursue careers. Although less than 15 percent of Saudi women work outside the home, more and more women are going to work, and this trend will only continue. In conversations with dozens of Saudi women over the last few years, what I hear and see over and over again is their determination to find meaningful jobs. Some want to change the world, but others simply want to carve out space for themselves both financially and intellectually.

Along with working to earn advanced degrees and specialized skills, many Saudi women are taking on responsibilities in the United States that would not be possible at home. This is in part because Saudi students frequently live with siblings or relatives, splitting expenses and helping one another navigate the challenging terrain of daily life: getting a driver’s license, finding a doctor, and renting an apartment. Interestingly, this time living together in the United States bends normal social expectations, and women take responsibility for many aspects of daily life that they would rely on men or domestic workers to do in Saudi Arabia. Since a man does not need to accompany his sister for errands and appointments, oftentimes he is content to take a backseat and let her take care of the details. This is creating an interesting dynamic: empowered Saudi women who are both accustomed to handling their family’s affairs and increasingly irritated by the inertia of their male relatives.

Still, despite these new dynamics and the large and growing number of Saudi students leaving home to study abroad, changes to deeply held social beliefs will not be fast or easy. As graduate student Amal told me, “One of the main reasons King Abdullah sent us [to study abroad] is to change the mentality of the people, but they are not changing.” Even if Saudi men live one way in the United States, seemingly happy to let their sisters and wives take on more active roles in public life, it is hard for many to buck dominant norms and continue to support women’s empowerment to the same extent once they return to Saudi Arabia. However, Amal admitted that although there is “stubborn resistance to change, still, we have hope.”

Missed Opportunities for Deeper Engagement

While the United States and Saudi Arabia may have divergent views on specific foreign policy issues as Ambassador Richard LeBaron highlights in his December 2013 “Building a Better US-Gulf Relationship” issue brief for the Atlantic Council, both countries are missing a historic opportunity to promote better understanding, cultural exchange, and stronger higher education ties. American universities should ensure long-term engagement with Saudi alumni by building databases and networks that keep connections alive long after the students return home. In this way, partnerships can grow between individuals as well as institutions.

Just as importantly, Saudi Arabian stakeholders, the Cultural Mission, or the Ministry of Higher Education, should create a comprehensive alumni database to help students stay in touch with one another after what is often a formative, life-changing five to seven years in the United States. These alumni networks should be established as soon as possible since the number of Saudis in the United States is only growing and will likely continue to increase until at least 2020 when the program is set to stop accepting new enrollees.

Alumni networks will help develop long-term connections between Saudis and Americans, but new initiatives are also needed for the short term, when students are living in the United States. Making friendships with non-Saudis can be daunting due to language and cultural barriers on both sides. To help Saudis befriend Americans and vice versa, ESL centers and universities should develop programs that pair students with a foreign exchange partner for cultural outings. Moreover, Arabic language programs at universities should take advantage of this sizable population of native speakers and help pair students studying Arabic with a Saudi language partner. These networking programs would stimulate friendships and dialogue that might not happen otherwise.

Alongside foreign student partnership programs, Saudi students need access to more academic support. Although the scholarship program offers a stipend for tutoring, students often struggle to find adequate assistance, especially with editing papers. On-campus writing centers do not have the capacity to help a graduate student with long term papers on short notice; moreover, overloaded and underpaid writing center staff rarely have the time to explain the nuances of usage and grammar. This means that Saudi students often struggle with writing essays and research papers, perhaps the most important skill in higher education. U.S. universities and ESL centers should coordinate with Saudi sponsors such as the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to connect students in need of writing support with qualified peer instructors as well as ESL instructors interested in private tutoring. This initiative could also be a conduit for cultural exchange, but at a minimum it would help Saudi students find critical support to hone their writing skills.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program is a special opportunity to educate the upcoming generation in Saudi Arabia and benefit their American host universities and commuities. The unique challenges that the large and growing presence of Saudis in the United States represents means the Saudi government, U.S. universities, and language centers must do a better job working together to provide the students with the support they need. This will help ensure that Saudi students get the most from their educational experience and get to know more about America and Americans.

Stefanie A. Hausheer is an assistant director for programs at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East where her research focus is the Gulf and Yemen.

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About Stefanie Hausheer

People Stefanie-HausheerStefanie Hausheer is Assistant Director for Programs at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. In addition to coordinating Washington-based and regional events for the Center, she conducts research on Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Yemen. Before coming to the Council, she was a graduate research assistant at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies. Stefanie holds a master’s degree in Middle East Studies from The George Washington University. Her graduate capstone project examined the potential social, economic, and political impact(s) of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which has sent over 100,000 Saudis to study abroad. Stefanie has traveled throughout the Middle East and has advanced proficiency in Arabic. She speaks the Saudi dialect, which she learned while hosting and befriending a number of Saudi students over the years.

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