BOSTON. Miami. Los Angeles. Washington DC. You see them in all the major cities and even the smaller ones, too. Since the 1960’s, places like San Diego and Washington state have been the temporary home for Saudi students as they pursue their higher educations there. Freshmen replace graduates in a recurring cycle that has persistently reaffirmed the lure of US universities for students.
Why the United States? And why — even years after an intense national xenophobia was injected into post-9/11 America — do we still find Saudi students filling out applications requesting approval to attend its universities and colleges? The “Land of the Free” and its institutions of learning must posses some underlying appeal.
“I attended university in the States because I felt there were just way more options,” stated Anmar Madani, a Saudi graduate of the University of Oregon. “Unless you’re going into petrochemicals, Saudi Arabia doesn’t offer the same options, let alone quality education.”
Wassan Humadi, international student recruiter for Al Jamiat/US Educational Group, stated that students attend US universities for various reasons, the first being that US universities really want them. As a recruitment officer, Humadi helps US universities reach students in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
“We market their programs to these students in order to bring them back to the US,” said Humadi. “The universities want to do this for a multitude of reasons; one of which is internationalizing the campus and having a more diverse student population, which benefits all of those on the campus.”
The fact that the students are on a fully funding government scholarship and won’t need financial aid is also an understated plus!
But the lure of US universities isn’t just because they possess a good marketing campaign. The selling propositions appear to be valid and according to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission office in Washington DC, the proof is in the 30,000-plus students currently enrolled in the US on the Saudi scholarships.
With many Saudi students on government scholarships, the more economical options are the more appealing ones. The United States’ currency is tied to the Saudi Arabian riyal, making the $1,800 monthly stipend issued to Saudi students on the government scholarship more stable because it isn’t subject to fluctuations between the two currencies. The higher cost of living in European cities is also a factor. Of course, the US has its expensive cosmopolitan areas, too, but it also has highly ranked universities, such as Louisiana State and University of Virginia, where the cost-of-living is low enough to live comfortably.
There is also the strong historical bond between America and Saudis.
Most students’ parents, who were educated abroad, attended university in the US. Back in the 1960’s, students were often sent to study engineering and petroleum engineering, which was not rigorous in the other parts, such as the UK. The United States possessed qualified professors in Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi with serious credentials from the oil companies, explained Humadi. “In part, Saudis have continued to send their kids to the US because of these ties.”
Another apparent draw is the flexibility of the US educational system.
“As you know, the US education system is much more flexible than that in the UK,” said Humadi. For example, it’s easier to switch degrees at a US university with fewer repercussions.
A major incentive to attend university in the US is that diversity of programs the schools have to offer.
“With more than 3,000 institutions, there is always something for everyone,” said Humadi. “Students are able to find bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD’s at well-ranked small or large universities that are within their particular study major.” Presenting an explicit and comprehensive spectrum of educational programs, the US is able to cater to most niches.
“Since our international growth initiative three years ago, we have seen significant growth from Saudi Arabia,” stated Bryan J. Witham, director of admissions at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Science. “We offer the students, especially at the PhD level, educational subjects that are still not offered in Saudi Arabia, as well as clinical opportunities within the US system.”
In line with its diversified appeal, America also offers an assortment of schools of different rankings, making acceptance into college more attainable.
In general, students attending US colleges also have the option—and many do actually opt for—to begin studies at a school with easier standards of admission and then transfer to a higher ranked school if and when their grades improve.
“There is just much more flexibility in the US system, which helps those coming in from Saudi, as the shift in learning and teaching styles can be quite difficult to get used to,” said Humadi.
Although highly recommended, foreign students in the US are not required to complete a foundation course before he or she can commence regular classes that would count toward his or her major. Students hesitate to “waste” a year on foundation because, while it may be beneficial in a more generic sense, it may also be detrimental because a student may lose his or her basic high school knowledge in that gap year.
But Humadi asserts that a foundation year is highly advisable.
“Anecdotal statistics show that the Saudi student who starts with a one-year foundation course before his or her bachelor’s, comes out of his or her first year with a much higher GPA than a student starting straight from high school,” stated Humadi.
Echoing a sentiment often voiced by both Saudi and international educators, the Saudi system fails to equip students with the right tools to succeed in a foreign educational system. The Saudi school system, from elementary to high school, generally rewards kids who by rote memorization regurgitate information and never debate or argue with the teacher.
Michael Groen, assistant director of the Office of International Programs of Marquette University, stated: “We have absolutely found that students who complete a foundation year are significantly more prepared for the different style and rigor of the US classroom, which expects different things than their Saudi class would have.”
The Saudi learning methodology translates poorly in the US classroom, where the professor does not expect the student to merely write down whatever he says.
“In these countries, cognitive thinking, debate, questioning, are punished,” said Humadi, “And then all of a sudden, the same student is thrown into a system, where even in a calculus class you can debate the way a problem is solved. It’s a tough switch in thinking.”
Regardless, the universities in the US seem to continually usher in thousands of Saudi students every year. Their flexible system is more accommodating to students, who aren’t used to a foreign curriculum, while the diversity of their programs and school rankings make both acceptance and graduation more easily attained.
The historical familiarity and economic variety add to the nation’s overall appeal. And as long as America continues to welcome them with open arms, the invasion of Saudi students into US universities and colleges is sure to continue for generations to come.