As a new adjunct instructor last fall in the Drexel English Language Center, I was informed that a large percentage of our students are from Saudi Arabia, most of whom are men. My first thought was, “How is this going to work?” I had no firsthand experience with the students from this culture, but I did know that people in Saudi Arabia don’t interact with anyone of the opposite sex outside of their families.
This April, after the bombing in Boston and the racial profiling of a Saudi spectator, I found myself worrying about my students. After working with them, I had come to know them as individuals, and it pained me that others might only see them as a nationality or a religion instead of as individuals. I have recently had the opportunity to sit and talk with some of my students and have learned more about their experiences.
Masoud Alhaddad and his wife, Hanan Hafiz, shared with me stories of what life was like for them when they first arrived in the United States. They explained that much like other Saudi students, they were able to study in the United States on a scholarship.
According to a U.S. News and World Report article, former President George W. Bush and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia launched an extensive scholarship program in 2005 that has led to a growing Saudi student presence on U.S. campuses.
“It’s a great gift from our king,” Alhaddad said. “We are trying to learn everything we can.”
When the couple first arrived, some adjustments were easy. “We are used to American-style food,” Hafiz said. “We have American restaurants in Saudi Arabia.”
It has been harder for these students to make friends. “We decided to reach out to [Americans]and to learn everything we can,” Alhaddad said.
From their experience so far, Alhaddad and Hafiz have been pleased with several aspects of American life. For example, Hafiz is not able to drive, so the public transportation system in Philadelphia is a big help. “We do not have anything like this [in Saudi Arabia],” she said.
As a couple, Alhaddad and Hafiz have some things in common with many American couples. Hafiz is interested in pursuing an advanced degree, and Alhaddad supports her in this effort.
“And he does the cooking!” Hafiz said.
“I like it,” Alhaddad countered.
Being flexible is the key for many international students living in the United States. Another student, Abdulaziz Altuwaijri, a Drexel Allison Rose Fellowship student, said that there have been some challenges for him, but in order to study, he was determined to adapt.
“We watched a lot of American TV before we came,” he said. He went on to explain that he went from living alone in Saudi Arabia to now sharing a house where several of his roommates are women. “I have to accept everything to live here,” he said.
Some things have not been easy. “It is hard how some people look at me when I’m waiting for the bus,” he said. One time on a bus, someone from another country guessed where he was from and started bothering him.
“I wish people would understand about my culture,” Altuwaijri said. “If anything happened bad from one guy, it doesn’t mean we are all like that.”
According to Altuwaijri, some Americans assume that all students from his country are rich. “A lot of people think that we are rich,” he said. “This is wrong. The government is rich, but it doesn’t mean that individuals are all rich.”
One thing that many of the students from Saudi Arabia have in common is an interest in learning as much as they can while living here. “We are interested in first learning the culture,” Alhaddad said. “The language will come through the culture.”
Learning the culture has not always been easy. For example, “In Saudi Arabia you should share your food if you want to eat in public places,” Hafiz explained. “If I have a bag of chips, M&Ms or even gum, and I want to eat on the train or bus or in [a] waiting room, I should share my food with people sitting next to me. For me I was really surprised, not because it is not a common courtesy in the U.S. but by how people react when I offer them this food.”
Knowing the culture “leads the people to connect with us,” Alhaddad said. For many international students, it is difficult to connect with American students, and that is particularly true of students learning English who are shy to speak.
In his role as an Allison Rose Fellowship student, Altuwaijri advises new students in the ELC and helps them make adjustments to living and studying here. Still, he wishes that he could help more students connect with Americans. After teaching at the ELC for several terms, I too have that wish.
Dawn Kane is an adjunct instructor at Drexel’s English Language Center and can be contacted at [email protected].