Saudi Arabian student Ali Alnakhli feared Saudi students would be segregated from American students when he came to Western Carolina University to study English, while Mohammed Shutayfi worried he would be perceived as a terrorist. “I was afraid they would consider us bad Muslims, terrorists or extremists,” said Shutayfi of his concerns after enrolling in a program to pursue an electrical engineering degree in America. “I left everything and decided to move (here). I sold my car. I took a loan. I was afraid to lose this opportunity, and (then find) people don’t accept me.”
But even before they arrived at WCU, Connie Hanna, director of the Intensive English Program, was taking steps to make sure the first 11 students from Saudi Arabia to participate in her program would feel welcome. Hanna sought volunteers to room with the students and help them adjust to life on campus. Among those who stepped forward was Andy Miller, a junior majoring in international studies and philosophy with a concentration in religion. Miller was eager to meet the Saudi students but worried that his classmates might not be as receptive to them as he was.
To their mutual surprise, turnout for the Saudi students’ first campuswide informational presentation was so large that the event had to be moved to the nearly 200-seat theater in A.K. Hinds University Center. The reception has been so warm that it is not uncommon in the evenings at Reynolds Residence Hall to see tables of Saudi students sitting and talking with English-speaking students, said Miller.
“It is almost like an English classroom, even though it is 7’o’clock at night,” said Miller, who recently helped organize a student group called Ummah, an Arabic word that means “community,” to bring students together to learn from each other. “I have been totally wrong, and have been really impressed with WCU students wanting to learn about them and the Islamic culture.”
As part of a government program, nearly 30 students from Saudi Arabia have come to WCU for the Intensive English Program in the past year in order to improve their language skills in preparation for applying for baccalaureate programs in the United States. Support comes from a government scholarship program that funds study abroad of qualified Saudi youth in fields needed to improve the quality of the workforce and academia in Saudi Arabia. Alnakhli, for instance, plans to study emergency medical care upon completion of the English program because of needs in the area of medicine.
Moving to Western North Carolina, of course, required some adjustments. The Saudi students came with few items aside from clothing, coffee, spices, cologne, religious books or photos. So when Miller took several Saudi students on their first trip to Wal-Mart, they spent several hours filling buggies with items from electronics to furnishings for their rooms.
Food has been one of the biggest challenges. Limited offerings on campus meet Islamic dietary guidelines, and few had cooked before coming to the United States. Also, food storage and preparation was different. When some bought milk and eggs, they were not accustomed to keeping them in refrigerators (as their roommates were).
Saudi students also are adjusting to being in a co-ed institution, something they had not experienced at home. “In Saudi Arabia, genders are segregated until they reach college because of Saudi law,” said Saudi student Taleb Alsharmah. In addition, younger generations of Saudi females are beginning to wear what they want, except on special occasions, but most traditional attire in Saudi Arabia includes a “hijab” or a head scarf that covers part, if not all, of the female’s face. “It’s cool studying with girls, but it’s very hard to focus,” said Saudi student Joesph Alamri, smiling.
Alamri also said he was surprised by how “green” Cullowhee was, as he was used to deserts and rocky mountains. “During the summer in Jeddah, it gets very hot so many people go to the mountains for vacation because it’s cooler. This is very different from American culture where many people vacation at a hot beach,” said Alamri.
The difference in climates means roommates can have trouble agreeing on a comfortable room temperature. “He likes it 90 degrees, and I like it 60 degrees,” said Matthew Del Corral, who rooms with Shutayfi. Shutayfi, who had never seen snow, agreed. “This is so cold for us,” he said. “I am freezing all the time.”
Nevertheless, the two men have formed a strong friendship. When Shutayfi landed a job at Freshëns on campus – an opportunity to practice his English – he went to Del Corral to practice what he would need to know.
They went to the website to learn such words as strawberry, mango and Reese’s Pieces. “I knew all of this in Arabic,” said Shutayfi, an avid reader who has been exited to have access to books that are not available in Saudi Arabia and read and learn about other religions, including Christianity. “I am filling my brain with English.”
During the breaks, the Saudi students have taken time to travel to the beach and beyond. Some participated in service-learning, alternative break trips to Lexington, Ky., and Washington, D.C.
For spring break, Shutayfi joined students from the WCU Wesley Foundation to help out in Nashville, Tenn., where some residents are still recovering from the damage caused by flooding last year. “It’s nice to work together,” said Shutayfi. “All of us have the same goal – to help humanity. This is one of the reasons why we came here – not to get this degree or to learn a second language or come back making money, but to build the bridge between American society and Saudi Arabian society, and to learn from each other and help each other. I hope someday to make a difference and change the bad ideas for the next generation to live in peace.”
Hanna said she has loved teaching the Saudi students whose enrollment has grown to more than two dozen and could jump to 40 in the fall. “They quickly formed a community in Reynolds with their new American friends,” said Hanna. “They are wonderful young people with big hearts. I hope that everyone in this community gets a chance to meet one or all of these students because they are truly lovely and wonderful people to be around.”
By Teresa Killian Tate
WCU student Sky Kanott contributed to this report.