I am learning new things about international students every week. Today, I read an article from Inside Higher Ed about the growing numbers of Saudi Arabian students in the U.S. One contributing factor is the advent of the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program, a Saudi Arabian program that funds 12-18 months of language training in addition to undergraduate or graduate degree study. Due to this program, about 50% of the students Saudi Arabia sends abroad study in the U.S. Another Inside Higher Ed article gave some great statistics regarding international students, and American students studying abroad. According to the Institute of International Education, Saudi Arabia is the fourth leading country of origin for international students, behind China, India and South Korea.
The article noted that there is a big cultural difference that contributes to the way Saudi students think about academics. A support coordinator at Boise State University noted, “What we’re seeing is oftentimes family takes precedence over academics and students will oftentimes miss class to speak to their parents due to the time difference or leave the country for a brother’s marriage and miss weeks of coursework.”
I’ve already heard concerns from ELP instructors about academic honesty – either it “sounds better” the way someone else wrote it, or they were “helping a friend.” The staff at Boise State notice the same thing, in addition to the idea that Saudi students form tight-nit groups and seldom venture out of them. Around the library, I’ve noticed the Saudi students from my classes only hanging out with other Saudi students. One of them told me that it was difficult to make American friends because of the language barrier, and by the time language was no longer an issue, both Saudi and American students pretty much had their groups of friends set. VCU has many initiatives to try to get international students interacting with American students, and they have been successful to varying degrees. International students who are here for only a short period of time are paired with an American “buddy” who has recently returned from being abroad, and can related to the challenges of being a student in a foreign country. Another program pairs international students who want more practice speaking English, with a native-English speaker. They meet once a week for a period of time to just talk about life, school, Richmond, etc., practice English, and learn about the other’s culture. Even so, these are only short term interactions with a single American, and international students still struggle to become immersed into American culture. With larger cohorts of Saudi students at single institutions, will this issue become even more difficult to address?