In Pursuit of Knowledge

Students from the Middle East face unique challenges in Eugene

The Al-Jadani Family. Photo by Todd Cooper.

It is Sunday afternoon and Adel Al-jadani is relaxed in shorts and a T-shirt, sitting on a blanket in his Eugene apartment. Two of his three babies are sprawled on the floor near him, gurgling and cooing. The other is asleep in a pink-and-white cradle in the corner.

This school term, Adel Al-jadani is staying home with the kids. He came to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia with his wife Asma Al-jadani to study at the UO nearly two years ago, but when Asma Al-jadani had triplets last November, everything changed.

Now, Adel Al-jadani is the primary caregiver for the infants, while Asma Al-jadani finishes up her studies at the American English Institute (AEI), the UO’s language and integration school.

When one of the infants on the floor starts to complain, Adel Al-jadani expertly juggles babies and puts the complainer in the cradle for her nap. Asma Al-jadani, dressed in a dark-blue shirt and a pink hijab, sits nearby, watching her husband with approval. “Our babies, you know, they help us,” she says with a smile. “One sleeps, two are awake.”

The husband staying home is not a typical arrangement, even in the U.S., but it is especially not the case in Saudi Arabia. Strongly enforced gender roles there mean that women are usually the ones at home — only 18 percent of women worked outside the home in Saudi Arabia in 2012, according to the United Nations.

But for this young couple living a long way from their family, it was the best solution.

Thanks to the University of Oregon, Eugene has the largest population of international students in the state. More than 4,000 were enrolled at the UO and Lane Community College in the fall of 2014, according to the Institute for International Education.

Students from China have driven that trend, but students from the Middle East are a growing part of that population. In fall of 2014, Saudi Arabians were the second-largest international student population at the UO and the largest at LCC, along with groups of Iranians, Yemenis and others, according to data from the respective schools.

The Middle East has turned into a political buzzword, but for students from that part of the world who come to Eugene, they must embrace the experience while dealing with the challenges of living in a foreign culture thousands of miles from home.

First Steps

Martine Wigham, the international SEVIS (Student Exchange and Visitor Information System) coordinator at AEI, helps integrate international students into campus life, and she has worked with international students for over 17 years. Wigham says family is a high priority in many cultures in the Middle East — more so than in mainstream American culture. That means students sometimes have to adjust their expectations, especially in the classroom.

Wigham explains that if an older brother calls, a student from the Middle East would most likely answer it in the middle of class. “He calls me, I have to pick up,” she says about the average student’s thought process.

Students come to AEI to learn English before going on to enroll in degree programs at the UO or other institutions, meaning the AEI also helps with cultural adjustment and learning about academic and cultural expectations in an American classroom.

Ibrahim Hamide, the owner of Cafe Soriah, says he has sympathy for students from the Middle East — he used to be one. He came to Eugene from Palestine as a UO student in 1969.

“It’s the first time they’re not getting babysat by their families,” he says. “New culture, new everything.”

Hamide says some of the adjustments they must make are ones any young person goes through. “That’s the age when a lot of people are still shy,” he says, explaining that the students are figuring out their personal strengths.

Wedad Al-lahji. Photo by Todd Cooper.

Culture Shift

For students like Wedad Al-lahji, who moved to Eugene two years ago from Saudi Arabia with her husband and three kids, American universities can be full of new and trying experiences. She is earning a masters degree from UO in applied linguistics and plans to pursue a Ph.D.

In Saudi Arabia, Al-lahji says, women spend most of their time inside, unless there is an urgent need to go into town, so her first experience navigating campus was a challenge. “I remember my department was in Agate [Hall],” she says. “It was far away; I didn’t know how to get there. For me it was scary, it was tiring, but I was happy because it was a totally new experience for me.”

She says one of her most challenging experiences was last year when she was asked, as part of her graduate coursework, to teach a series of lessons to a classroom of English-language learners. The class was filled with students from Saudi Arabia, and they were male.

“We don’t teach men at all,” Al-lahji says about women back home. “I was on the spot.”

But she did her best, and she says she was able to win her students’ respect. “I think they themselves were proud of me because I was standing and speaking the way the Americans present,” she says.

Education is segregated by gender in Saudi Arabia, but women are well-represented in colleges and universities — according to a 2012 report by CNN, women outnumber men in higher education in two-thirds of the countries in the Middle East. However, this education does not necessarily translate to jobs, the report continues — women rarely move on to participate in the work force there.

Abdulmohsin Abusaq. Photo by Todd Cooper.


Male students in Eugene sometimes have to deal with more subtle kinds of challenges. Abdulmohsin Abusaq, a Saudi student studying at AEI, says he loves Eugene — the damp weather, the friendly people, the college-town environment filled with dissenting voices.

“I like diversity, the difference of opinions. I like this,” Abusaq says. He recalls an organized debate between his group, the Arab Student Union, and the UO Alliance of Happy Atheists. They had interesting conversations, he says, about religion, ethnicity and discrimination.

But adapting to an environment like this can be a challenging transition. “Sometimes people here, they have to be like Americans,” Abusaq says about the pressure he sometimes feels. He explains that students from the Middle East can feel like they need to conform to more liberal standards, especially on a campus where pre-marital sex is the norm and the full range of sexualities is openly discussed.

Abusaq says he tries to be honest about the realities of his more conservative background. “We need to represent our culture as it is,” he says. “We are not that open-minded.”

As for the Al-jadanis, they face a more domestic challenge — taking care of triplets. “We have come away from our family, so we have a lot of responsibility,” Asma Al-jadani says. She adds that when she was pregnant, her family encouraged her to come home to have the babies, but she decided against that because of the better health care in the U.S.

After the babies were born, both Adel and Asma Al-jadani went back to school the next term, so they found a nanny on Craigslist who was able to help them. But at the beginning of spring term, they learned the nanny would no longer be available. That’s when Adel Al-jadani decided to stay home with the babies. “He is a good father,” Asma Al-jadani says.

Perception and Reality

America is a dangerous, violent and racist place — if you just watch the news or movies. For Hadis Hadipour, a masters student in architecture at the UO, that is all she had seen, at least before she left Iran to study in Oregon.

Hadipour, who lives in Corvallis with her husband, says they were particularly concerned about the widespread gun ownership in the U.S. “It was kind of frightening for us,” she says. “It was a big issue.”

But she was pleasantly surprised when she came to Oregon. “Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems here,” she says. “Fortunately, people in Eugene, in Corvallis, are well-informed.”

Gun violence is relatively low in Oregon, and the number of hate crimes is low as well — 52 hate crimes of all types were reported in 2012, according to the FBI. But they do happen. A mosque in Corvallis was firebombed in 2010, an incident which occurred in response to an FBI sting operation that exposed, possibly through entrapment, a Muslim student’s plans to detonate a bomb in Portland at a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony.

Abusaq says he only had one negative experience in Eugene, not too long after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. “I was walking beside the Willamette River here,” he says. “Someone on a bike comes by and says, ‘Boston,’ and then he leaves us.”

That experience did not diminish his enthusiasm for the area. “You can say I fell in love with Oregon,” he says. “It’s not hard like the East Coast … like the South.” Abusaq explains he’s heard stories from friends who live elsewhere. “They really face some racist things,” he says.

Hamide, who has lived in Eugene for more than 40 years, has seen quite a few changes. “I remember when I came here, it was so beautiful,” he says, recalling how open people were, how they accepted him without qualms, how his neighbors used to come check on him. “I miss that innocence.

“Now it’s been tainted by the fears that the terrorists are going to come get us,” he says.

But the Eugene he loves is still there, he says, even after all these years. “I tried to leave,” he says. “I went to California. It just reeled me back. I love it here. I’ve been here longer than a lot of folks in Eugene.”

Ebb and Flow

The trend of students from the Middle East is driven, in part, by policy decisions made by foreign governments, especially the King Abdullah Scholarship administered by the Saudi government.

Wigham says that when she first started at AEI in 1997, the student population was around 5 percent Middle Eastern. At one point, she recalls, the school saw an increase in its proportion of Kuwaiti students — until the Kuwaiti government changed its English proficiency requirements, bringing AEI’s enrollment of Kuwaiti students back down. “That’s international education,” she says. “You have a government decision. Boom.”

The latest trend of rising Saudi enrollment began in 2005, when the Saudi government launched the King Abdullah Scholarship, which pays educational expenses for Saudi students at select schools in the U.S. “When the scholarship opened up, we started getting students from lots of different parts of Saudi Arabia,” Wigham says. “We now have a variety of social classes.”

According to a 2014 paper in the Open Journal of Social Sciences, Oregon has the tenth-highest number of Saudi Arabian students in the country. The paper says that not all colleges are eligible for the scholarship program, and schools are selected based on recommendations from specialized committees in Saudi Arabia.

Wigham says that, at first, the students were exclusively male and pursuing engineering degrees — the idea being they could go home and help build Saudi Arabia’s developing infrastructure. Now students study a variety of disciplines — everything from linguistics to special education.

And women can participate in the scholarship program, as long as they have a male sponsor (as is the norm back home, women are expected to have a male chaperone).

But Wigham wonders how long the current trend will last. “It depends on the government in place and their decisions,” she says. The late King Abdullah made the original scholarship deal with President George W. Bush a few years after 9/11, in part as a diplomatic gesture.

Today, the world is different — for example, King Abdullah’s successor — King Salman — recently backed out of a high profile visit to the U.S.

Student demographics can also depend on fluctuations in the global economy and changes in the price of a key commodity that the economy of Saudi Arabia depends on heavily. “What worries me is the price of oil,” Wigham says. “Are they going to be able to send their students to a country where the cost of education is absolutely ridiculous?”

An Education

Most students eventually return home after earning their degrees. That, after all, is the main motivation: to send students abroad for an education and then bring them back to contribute at home.

For Adel and Asma Al-jadani, there’s still a lot of work to do. Initally, they had decided to go to a school in New York next year, where Asma would be able to earn a masters degree in accounting and Adel could continue his studies in business administration.

But recently the Saudi government, without warning, removed that school from the list of schools approved for the King Abdullah scholarship.

It will be a long road. The Al-jadanis still have years of balancing their studies with obligations to friends, relatives and the Saudi government, all while raising triplets far from home.

They say they will continue looking until they find a school that is a good fit. “They encourage everybody — women and men — to complete their education,” Asma Al-jadani says about her family back home. “I think in our country now, everybody likes to complete their education.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author’s partner works at the American English Institute at the UO.