- American Bedu is pleased to present this interview with Abeer, a female Saudi student who is studying in the United States.
- First of all Abeer, thank you for following American Bedu blog and for agreeing to this interview!
Thank you so much for the opportunity. It’s an honor to be on your blog!
I want to add that I use your blog as one of my resources to keep myself updated with news about home!
- Let’s begin with a little bit about yourself. What part of the Kingdom are you from? Prior to arriving in the United States for studies, what was your educational and professional background?
I am from Makkah but I have been living in Jeddah for the last 14 years, I usually joke around and tell people I’m from the Highway (Khat Alsaree3!!)
I received my BA and MA in Linguistics from King AbdulAziz University. I started off teaching English in a center during my sophomore year summer break and continued doing that until my graduation. After graduation I worked with Effat University and have been with them ever since until I received the King Abdullah Scholarship through the university. My last post before I left for my PhD was the Enhancement Centers manager in Student Affairs.
- What made you decide to study specifically in the United States? Where are you studying? Was Indiana University your first preference? Why or why not?
I chose the US and specifically the Midwest because I grew up within the area; my father was doing his PhD in the University of Madison Wisconsin when I was young. I had a wonderful childhood experiencing all the seasons and the Midwest friendliness.
I applied to all the universities in the Midwest that were top in the field I was interested in and I was accepted in one of the four I applied; Indiana University.
- What are you majoring in? How do you intend to use your higher education on your return to Saudi Arabia?
I am majoring in Higher Education Student Affairs which is part of the School of Education. Currently higher education is a rapidly developing field that governments and economists have taken interest in. The literature points out that there is a need for professionalism in this area and I couldn’t agree more. The economy is in the need for a holistic graduate that can work immediately upon entering the society. It is very important to note the sensitive role that higher ed faculty and staff play in an individual’s life,
Through my work in student affairs I have worked on projects that focus on students extracurricular skills, this helped develop my main research interest which is student adjustment and development. The main goal behind the PhD was to enhance my experience by learning more about theories and practiced methods that I could benefit from and use when I return to work in Saudi Arabia.
- What have you noticed as the biggest contrasts between educational styles in the United States as compared to Saudi Arabia?
I have noticed that higher education in the US is more of a lifestyle where you live and breathe books, papers, conferences, study groups..etc. Back home I felt that university to me was a responsibility like a job or basic school where attendance is required but then after 2 or 4 pm, the day is done and other aspects of life take over.
This is more or less enhanced by the fact that higher education is socially considered a turning point for most people in the United States where moving out of the family house into dorms is the norm whereas in Saudi Arabia, unless married, very few leave the state of dependency.
- How do you find the US education system? What’s life like for you at a large University? Was it a big transition adapting to the diversity and having not only other international students but male and female students in your classes?
I think there is an educational system set for every need and ability. When I was looking for universities I was told by many to choose one in the UK because of the closer distance to Saudi, the fact that the time period to get a PhD is less and that they require no graduate standardized tests. The main reason that I stuck to my decision was that most (if not all) university programs I looked at required a minimum of courses. I felt that especially since I was venturing into a new field that I would need some classes that allowed me to read and research different fields. This was the gap I was looking to fill. I worked in Student affairs for a long time, but I believe that to achieve productive quality work a person must now about all the dynamics of the institute he or she is working in. Knowing what others did in your field will help you see the overall picture and make clearer decisions for the benefit of the whole institution.
Indiana University Bloomington has a fairly large campus with more than 5,941international students. However I am the only international student in my cohort. I was also the only married female with kids. They were all nice and friendly but it was not easy to relate to anyone. I am on a scholarship and they all have graduate assistantships. I have to go back home immediate after class for my kids and they went out together after work. But it was very comforting to know that we were all there with more or less the same background experience. And we were all from different parts of higher education learning about the other parts together. In regards to dealing with male faculty and students I admit I was a bit timid. I did try something to help me – I gave them a neutral status – hahaha – I de-gendered them all! It was actually a method that worked really well with me. I was already intimidated by being outside my comfort zone I really did not need that extra stress!!
- What kind of adjustments, if any, have you made while studying in the United States?
Plenty! During my first year in the US I was on my own with my two children. My husband stayed behind because of his job. I had many turning points in my life and this certainly was one of the major ones. I had to learn to be available as I could not depend on anyone but myself when it comes to my children and their needs. I learned to budget (!) and compare prices. I wasn’t driving when I first arrived and taking the bus was frightening. I had a bike which I used for the first few months until a rainy day where I was forced to use the number 9 bus – I even called my friends in Saudi to let them know about my 10 minute adventure! It was a journey for me, I have never felt so vulnerable, I learned to ask for help which was very difficult for me. I always had help available: my driver, maid, my mother, sister, grandmother… I was never in need to go out and ask for assistance.
I believe that I have changed and am progressing to a more independent nature. I feel more confident about making my own decisions. If anything I realized how much I took for granted. I think like anyone I wanted to experience a different life and was keen on leaving my comfort zone and starting my adventure. I am enjoying my adventure but with an added feeling of looking forward towards the ending and returning home.
One of the most important changes that happened to me is on the personal side. My husband and I decided at the beginning that it would be best if he stayed in Saudi while I left with the kids and did my best to finish as soon as possible. It was a difficult decision but we decided to go for it for a year and if it didn’t work out we would have to give up something. That whole academic year was the toughest challenge of my life. I realized the importance of a family being together. I realized that while independence was a gift it did not mean detaching yourself. My children needed their father; I needed my husband’s support. I realized that needing him was not a weakness. I grew up with a lot of feminist books and always wanted to prove that I can exist on my own. I still think it is important to be strong however a partnership cans the best place to derive strength from. My husband has generously left his job and joined us now. He is discovering new interests and working on a non-degree program. I am very blessed
- What do you see as some of the biggest differences between your life in Saudi Arabia and now as a student in the United States? Please explain.
My life in Saudi was hectic! I worked long hours, volunteered at my children’s school, participated in social events, always on lookout for new extracurricular activities for the kids, I was always pushing for time for my husband, parents, grandmother, siblings all that while trying to maintain the best acceptable social life I could! It was crazy, I had so many things to do and was home very little.
Now? well Bloomington is a very calm and peaceful place and it kind of rubbed off on me. My children still have their after school activities which is great for them. We have more family time than we ever had before. We have movie nights at home around a fire. We have small Arab gathering almost every other week. My husband and I have peaceful mornings where we go out and walk.
- What are you missing most about Saudi Arabia? What are you enjoying most while studying in the United States?
I miss my family, my grandmother lived close by to me and I visited her as frequently as possible. Her windows bring in a beautiful breeze even on the hottest days. She would tell me stories or talk about a soap she was watching. I miss her tremendously.
I miss my sisters!!!
In general I miss the social life and the easiness of becoming part of a social circle. I feel that I am experiencing this alienation because I am a foreigner here and every time I meet someone I take time to introduce myself and my background not that I don’t enjoy that but I do miss the familiarity. On the other hand I have more time to myself and my small family. I have been able to explore my own individuality; I make my decisions without too many outside factors influencing my opinion. In the end there are two things that are very important to me now; my family and my studies.
- What do you think will be the biggest adjustments for you when you complete your US studies and return to Saudi Arabia?
I have been through this adjustment process when I was young, this was when my father received his PhD and we returned to Makkah. It was not easy and it was a tough road, but with support and understanding from my parents I was able to face the differences. But when I think about it now and how it will be after I return, I don’t feel any fear. I am actually thinking on how I can keep some of the independent lifestyle I have here. In your blog you mentioned the washing machines and the dependency on maids. I laughed thinking if I could depend on myself and have my home all to myself; that would be amazing.
I don’t fear people reaction much. I think this is attributed to the fact that Saudi’s (in Jeddah specifically) have a more understand view of cultural and social differences. I have been criticized of being an optimist when it comes to my view of Saudi. But I truly believe that we have developed and moved forward and will work to make a better life for each other. Lots of disasters and difficulties in the society have led to self-initiated changes. That’s the spark that we needed and through education ourselves we must work on bettering ourselves for the sake of bettering our society.
- Naturally I must ask, since you are a female student, (a) are you accompanied by a mahrem while in the US and (b) do you drive while you are in the United States?
I was accompanied by my husband when I first arrived; he did go back but visited every couple of months. After convincing my family my younger brother joined me for a short while, he was accepted in a university in the US and the UK but believe it or not he returned to Saudi because he could never feel at home anywhere else.
In regards to driving I was very scared of the whole experience and as soon as I got to Bloomington I was sent the booklet and some helpful hints for the writing test! I guess the ladies were excited on introducing me to driving. I took my time though and after I passed the test I needed to wait six months before I took my driving test because I had no previous license which was fine for me I was not looking forward to driving during rain or on icy roads. Once my husband was here he found me a driving instructor (saying that he couldn’t do it and that I needed someone with more professional teaching skills, I think he was just afraid I would use his car to learn!!) anyway I passed the test and received my license within three weeks. I do have to say that I still ask my husband to drive me everywhere (Saudi habit) and I only drive when I absolutely have to. I walk most of the time – I don’t get to do that back home so I try to enjoy myself as much as I can.
- Do you feel like you have been accepted and warmly welcomed as a Saudi student in the United States? Why or why not?
Bloomington is a funny place in Indiana. It is the most culturally diverse town in Indiana. I think that everyone here is more or less accepted and free to be themselves.
Before I came to the B-town I emailed a lot of people! I reached out to a moms group which helped me in locating the best schools. The department’s assistant was great in introducing me to the right people. Everyone that I talked to was really helpful. When I got here my advisor did a great job in welcoming me and gaining my trust, he works with many international students and I think my fears were things that he worked with before. He was my rock.
I have lovely Kuwait neighbors who have been wonderful and supportive.
As a Saudi student I must admit that I did not find much support from the Saudi society. After all I was without my husband so they really didn’t know I was there. Once I became familiar with my surrounding, I would go up to Saudi students that looked new and would ask them if I could help them in anyway. I met and made friends with a lot of Saudi’s that way. I think that was how one day I woke up to find myself nominated as the Saudi Club president! I declined though because I didn’t want anything to take me away from my kids and studies – I was hardly able to juggle those two things.
- Has it been easy to make friends with non-Saudis and non-Arabs?
I can’t say it was easy and I can’t say it was hard. I am a very social person and tend to say Salam to people I meet and introduce myself. At the beginning I kept to myself and my Kuwaiti neighbor was probably the only person I knew. I then started to meet moms of my children’s friends which was a great thing. They were there for me and I am very grateful to them. I have made many friends after that as I gained confidence and became more adjusted. My husband and I joined many social groups which increased our social circle.
- How has your lifestyle or customs changed, if any, while being a student in the United States?
Like I mentioned before I am very much relaxed now, I have my studies and my small family to take care of. I take every day as it comes. I don’t plan much. I feel as though I am on vacation sometimes!! This does not apply to the end of semesters by the way!
- Please share a few of your favorite experiences as a Saudi student in the United States.
I am very happy to be representing my country. I love clarifying misunderstandings and sharing experiences. Listening to others and realizing how we are all more or less the same. I once heard someone say that we are all foreigners. That is such a true statement.
One event I can remember was when I was asked to give a presentation about Saudi Arabia during the Saudi national day. I was never so proud of being a Saudi more than that day. I started of the presentation with the national anthem, everyone joined. The proud faces and enthusiastic voices were very moving.
- What have been some of the challenges you have faced since being in the United States? How have you overcome these challenges?
One of the things that I still struggle with is my hijab. People are curious and I find it difficult to handle all the staring and turning of heads. I don’t know if I have overcome it completely but I can say that I am more confident as time goes by. The most difficult part of the challenge knows that I am being judged according to my appearance. I wear my hijabs different every time just so that I leave people guessing which can actually be fun. People now come up and ask my husband and I where we are from. We get very interesting guesses!
- What advice do you have for other Saudi students and especially female students who are studying abroad? How can they make their educational experience the most positive?
Get to know the people around you. Learn from them. Do not isolate yourselves and allow different people to come in contact with you. I have seen students that spend more than a year in the US and still struggle with communicating and adjusting. Join clubs, volunteer, go to study groups, learn about others talk about yourself. Most important be simple. Do not worry about your typos, or how you might be understood or what one would think of you if you did something. And as I always tell my brothers have fun but be careful!
Being abroad is an opportunity to gain new experiences and learn more about you. Don’t waste it!
- Have you been to the United States before? What is your view of Americans as compared to Saudis? Is it true Americans are more open but Saudis are more hospitable?
I grew up in the midwest and spent a few vacations there after we returned to live in Saudi.
Americans and Saudis are different like any other culture is different to another. I even feel the Gulf States are very different to an extent too. However I do feel there is a more simplicity to the American Culture in comparison to the perfection that I see many Saudis seek. I would relate that theory to the openness and hospitality issue. I found both cultures display the same generosity and warmth but with varying degrees. Americans are more honest about their priorities and value their time and schedule. Surprising them with a visit would not be suggested. Saudi people on the other hand would cancel their appointments and call for catering even if it was a difficult time.
- How supportive has your family been about you studying abroad?
First of all I am very blessed to have the support of my father and husband when it came to my career. From the time my father told me that I was a good writer and I shouldn’t waste my time in a science major I knew that he always took my happiness seriously. When I received my scholarship he encouraged me to apply to universities and go ahead with the process, “You never know what will happen just go ahead and do it!”Alhamdulliah I did. My husband has been my support from day one. He never let me miss an opportunity. I am thankful for having him in my life. My family has always been a supporter of education in fact my mother will be finished with her qualification exams soon! Go Mama!! I am very blessed Mashala.
My husband and I are working hard on helping each other study after all we are the working kind where after the kids sleep it means its grownup time and we go out, socialize or just watch a movie. Now we have to help each other find quiet time and take turns putting the kids to sleep when the other has a deadline. Its great education for us!!
- How do you feel studying abroad and specifically in America has changed you?
I have matured and I like to think that I am more careful and perceptive about my decisions. I give myself more time to think and rationalize and I allow myself to make mistakes and learn from them. I know I am being very theoretical, I am after all studying for a degree in Philosophy!!
- Is there anything additional you’d like to share?
I care very much about student development and understand the importance of adjustment. I believe that a happy student is a successful student. I would be very happy to help as much as I can student that are facing difficulties with their surroundings and in need of assistance.
- Thanks again for this interview and I wish you all the best in your studies and future endeavors.
Thank you so much for this opportunity. I have to say that I loved answering your questions more than writing my papers!
For the number of international students at IUB:
(2012) Another record year for international student enrollment reported at Indiana University. Retrieved from: http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/23098.html
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