Program Opens Doors for Saudi Arabian Students

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Saint Joseph's University is a major beneficiary of an international agreement in 2005 between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President George W. Bush designed to increase the exchange of students and dialogue between the two nations.

This agreement includes full-tuition scholarships for over 20,000 students from Saudi Arabia to study at colleges in the United States over the next three years. The Saudi government has approved over 80,000 total scholarships to study abroad, which include up to 18 months of English language lessons before starting university studies.

The Center for International Programs and ELS Language Center at Saint Joseph's have been working closely with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, an agency of the Saudi government that serves as a liaison between that country and the educational institutions of the United States.

"The Cultural Mission is sending students to America to study select majors in certain schools," said Meryl Halpern, assistant director of international student services. "One of the main reasons that SJU was selected as an approved school is because of the ELS Language Center. They are looking for universities with on-site language centers, and our ELS program is renowned nationwide."

Ali Lafta, who is studying training and organizational development at SJU, was one of the first scholarship recipients from Saudi Arabia in 2006. He came with his wife, who is working toward her master's in education at the University.

"I came to Saint Joseph's because they had an ELS program, and when I looked at the course catalogue, I saw a wonderful program called 'training and development,'" said Lafta. "This is exactly what I do in Saudi Arabia."

Lafta taught English to adult students in a westernized section of Saudi Arabia where an American oil company used to be based. He said that he helped college-level students to read manuals and learn English terminology that would aid them in becoming plumbers, electricians and other trades people.

He and his wife Sadigah Al Baqer just had their first child, and plan to go back to Saudi Arabia as a family in 2009 when they graduate.

In the fall semester, there were 13 Saudi students studying at Saint Joseph's University in programs that have been pre-approved by the Saudi government and 50 in the ELS program, many of whom will matriculate into the University once they achieve proficient scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam,

Most of these students have already studied English in Saudi Arabia, but they often face certain difficulties in achieving proficiency.

"Our Saudi students come from a part of the world where there is a very strong oral tradition," said Regina Brown, director of the ELS Language Center. "So orally and aurally, they are much more advanced than in reading, writing and grammar skills."

Many of the Saudi students will be enrolled in graduate programs, and are bringing spouses and young children to live with them while they study in America.

Although the transition from any country to the United States can be a challenge, both ELS and the Center for International Programs work to help students make a smooth adjustment.

"There's a huge cultural chasm," said Brown. "And we were concerned when we found out we were having an influx of students that were from a country we had not dealt with before."

A training session led by an expert on Saudi Arabian culture was geared to educate faculty and administrators on Saudi cultural practices and customs. The ELS program also gives information to students on nearby apartment complexes where they could find housing. A few live on campus in Rashford Hall with other international students.

The addition of these students may make a substantial difference in the makeup of the approximately 200 foreign students who study at Saint Joseph's University.

"With about 50 Saudi Arabian students in ELS now, they will easily become the second most-represented country here," said Halpern. "And in a few years, it is entirely possible that they will surpass India for having the most students studying at St. Joe's, thanks to these scholarships."

"In Saudi Arabia, the education is a little different," Lafta said. "There, they teach you information, but here, professors want to get information from you."

"Here, you need to be creative and articulate," he said. "You need to speak for yourself."

--David King '08

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