From Riyadh to Portland

The Multicultural Center’s coffee hour was packed last Wednesday with faces from every part of the globe. Some stuck by their friends, content with their conversation. Some women talked only to other women, some men with only men. A few wandered in search of a friendly face. But everyone looked comfortable, drinking complimentary coffee, snacking on the free cookies and enjoying the company of those just as far away from home as they are. Among this large group of students from distant lands was a smaller group, one that Portland State has not seen for awhile: exchange students from Saudi Arabia.

Thanks to a scholarship from their government, and an agreement between President Bush and King Abdullah, these students have come to study at Portland State. Most of the students are straight out of high school and are planning to stay here for five years, the time allotted in their scholarship, ample time to receive their bachelor’s degrees.

“We admitted more than 200 [Saudis] for fall term,” said Christina Luther, assistant director of international studies. “The university was in a bit of a panic.”

Of the 200, 38 enrolled in classes. This winter term saw another 200 students apply and receive admission to Portland State, but again only 40 students enrolled. In the fall of 2004, the enrollment of international students was 200. This term, there are nearly 300 students.

“There is no cap,” said Katherine Morrow, program administrator of international affairs. “We’ll let anyone in who passes admission.”

When Bush and the then-Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia met in the spring of 2005, they agreed the two countries “must work to expand dialogue, understanding, and interactions between our citizens.” Among the ways to achieve this was to “increase the number of young Saudi students [who] travel and study in the United States.”

In the months that followed, Bush promised to relax the visa process in the U.S. and the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia announced they would issue 5,000 scholarships a year over the next five years. Each scholarship supplies a student with five full years of study in the United States. The scholarships quickly became highly sought after.

“It wasn’t easy [getting the scholarship],” said Yara Alhumaidan, a computer science major who came here in the fall.

Alhumaidan, who has been to the states a number of times, hails from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. One of the traits that set her apart from many of the other students is her fluency in English. Many of the other students are in an intensive English language program until they pass an aptitude test. The program has five levels, so the Saudi students will be entering regular Portland State classes sometime next year.

“They find it difficult, but they’re really participating,” said Maher Issa, a young Lebanese man who has been at Portland State studying Marketing and Management for three years. Issa has found himself acting as a translator for the new arrivals on occasion, but more often as a liaison to learning opportunities, like work shopping, English practice and conversation. “It’s not a tourism thing – they really want to learn,” he said.

Most of the Saudis chose Portland State because family members had studied here before in the 1970s or 1980s. This is true for Alhumaidan and Mohamed Alkhars, a young man who plans on studying business and finance. Alkhars, who comes from the town of Alhasa and said he is a bit tired of the Portland weather, was motivated by his father to apply for the scholarship and come to here. His father studied electrical engineering at Portland State in the 1970s.

“Saudi Arabia was built from the ground up in the 1950s, some would even say 1960,” said Jon Mandaville, a professor in the history department and the director of the Middle East Studies Center at Portland State. This is why there were such a large number of Saudis studying here in the 1970, so they could go back and teach at the newly built universities back home. Mandaville said there were over 300 Saudi exchange students a year then. “You’d see nothing but Saudis sitting around the cafeteria, talking with their American friends.”

That number fell a little in the intervening decades, but remained fairly high into the new millennium. According to director Luther, there were around 90 students from the gulf states of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait in the beginning of 2001.

After Sept. 11, 2001, many of these students went home because they were “simply afraid,” said Luther. Their respective governments transferred them to other universities around the country so they weren’t so concentrated, thinking this would make them safer. Additionally, visas became harder to obtain after Sept. 11, usually taking six months or more.

But with the new agreement between the two governments, the chilling effects of Sept. 11, 2001 seem to finally be thawing, at least for Saudi exchange students.

Alhumaidan is the only woman that has come to Portland through the scholarship program so far. But she doesn’t let this lonely status get to her. “It’s pretty cool that I’m the only one.”

When Alhumaidan’s mother heard the news of the scholarship this summer, she ran into her daughter’s room and shoved a newspaper into her sleeping face, too excited to wait.

“It was really big news,” Alhumaidan said. “Big, big news.”

Professor Mandaville does not see this distinction lasting long, though. “Sometime over the next five years I expect to see equal numbers.”

According to Mandaville, a large number of the students in the 1970s were women.