Women students from Saudi Arabia are finding a strikingly different but welcoming culture at Portland State.
MASHAER ALFARAJ came here from Alsharqiya, Saudi Arabia, two years ago, right out of high school, to study geology. Her father and older sister came along and stayed for one month while she got set up in an apartment.
“I did not know how to do anything!” Alfaraj, now 20, remembers. “My mom bought all my clothes, she did all my laundry. I had never written a check. I had to learn to do everything by myself. I have a brother studying in Eugene, and he comes up every so often, but mostly I am doing everything by myself.”
Alfaraj’s story is not unusual for the more than 100 Saudi Arabian women enrolled at PSU, part of a swelling Saudi student population across the United States. In 2005, the Saudi Arabian government launched the Saudi Scholarship Program, which has pushed PSU’s Saudi student population from 49 in 2005 to nearly 500 in 2012, including another 200 students in English language classes. Their government pays for full tuition, health care, a housing stipend, and yearly round trip airline tickets for trips back to Saudi Arabia.
With more than 70,000 students across the globe, the program is designed to promote cultural understanding and establish closer ties between Saudi Arabia and more than 20 other nations. Forging those ties is challenging when language, cultural customs, and everyday expectations are radically different. Life in the U.S. is especially daunting for Saudi women, who are not used to mixed-gender classrooms, living on their own, interacting with strangers, or the informal manners of many Americans.
DINA LINGGA, 37, works with Saudi students in the international student advising office. As an advisor, she helps these students—especially women—adjust to life in the U.S. Her duties are many, and include acting as an interpreter, helping Saudi women navigate the PSU campus, and providing general information.
“We encourage the women to really engage with America and to build social networks both with other Saudi students and with American students,” says Lingga. “Living as a woman in the U.S. is so different than in Saudi Arabia. There, women must have a male to do everything—drive, get a contract of any sort such as rent or utilities. So we help them do these things for themselves. They want to experience a different kind of life, and PSU offers a great opportunity.”
Left to right: Mashaer Alfaraj, Dina Lingga, and Rawan Altaweel are three of more than 700 students from Saudi Arabia now studying at Portland State.
Lingga came here in 2008 from Jeddah, along with her two young sons and her mother. Like many Saudi students, she chose PSU based on family connections—two brothers and an uncle had studied here. She spent a year studying in PSU’s Intensive English Language Program, which prepares students to tackle university classes taught in English.
It’s not always a painless transition from English language classes to University classes, where lectures and discussions seem to move at lightning speed. Lamia AlHamidi, a business student, initially found it challenging to be surrounded by native English speakers, and says of her public speaking class, “It was terrifying! I couldn’t stop shaking before my first speech. Then I noticed that all these English speakers were really nervous, too, even though they were speaking in their native language. So that gave me more confidence to speak up. I learned it’s just fine to make mistakes.”
Alfaraj, the geology student from Alsharqiya, agrees. “It goes so fast, and my brain still thinks in Arabic, translates everything into Arabic and then back. I am working very hard! I would sit through a whole calculus class and not understand a single word the instructor said, even though I understand the calculus. For about a month I just wanted to go home.”
She stops for a deep breath. “I don’t know anyone in my class, and I don’t know how to respond if another student tries to make friends. But I came here all the way to be a geologist, so I have to be successful. I want to work for a large Saudi petrol company, and then come back to the U.S. to earn my graduate degree. That keeps me going.”
LIKE MOST SAUDI women on campus, Alfaraj, AlHamidi, and Lingga choose to wear headscarves and modest clothing.
“One of the best things about PSU is that we can be who we are and not feel as if people are judging us based on what we wear. When I dress like this, people react to me as a person, not as a woman,” Lingga says.
Some Saudi women at PSU wear extremely conservative clothing that covers most of their face and body. “They are not hiding,” says Lingga. “They tell me they feel comfortable here. They can enjoy American life and still keep their customs and cultural dress.”
AlHamidi agrees that Portland is a welcoming place to be a Saudi woman. “I really like the people here, how friendly they are. I feel that I am not judged on my culture or religion or dress.” Now 22, she arrived five years ago from Riyadh with her parents, one brother, and two sisters, so that she and her siblings could study in the United States.
“I have been visiting here since I was 9, and I know and like this culture,” says AlHamidi. “Here, people respect your time. Even if it’s the dean, he’s on time when you meet with him. That’s a very good thing.
“Another difference between here and Saudi Arabia is that people respect younger children, like my little sister. They ask her what she needs. Back home, people ask the parents what the child needs. I think this way is good for children.”
After graduating this spring with a double major in human resources and leadership/management, AlHamidi is looking forward to building her career in Saudi Arabia. “I will miss the creativity of the United States, but I miss my friends so much!” She hopes to work in human resources for a corporation and eventually open her own business, perhaps a cafe.
“In Saudi Arabia, cafes are split into two sections: one just for men and the other for families, including husbands,” says AlHamidi. “I think women are more comfortable around other women, so my café would be just for women.”
Lingga has earned a graduate degree in conflict resolution and has applied to Portland State’s doctoral program in sociology. She plans to stay in the U.S. for now, furthering her education and supporting young Saudi women who are a world away from home, but determined to be successful—women like Alfaraj, who says, “I’ve learned from this that challenges come for everyone. It was so hard at first, but now it gets better and better, and I know I can handle it and graduate.”
Meg DesCamp, a Portland freelance writer, contributed the story "Is Portland Really Portlandia?" in the Winter 2013 Portland State Magazine.