On most counts, Fort Collins doesn’t fit the profile of a culturally diverse community: Two-hundred churches to one mosque; less than an 11 percent minority population.
Oddly, CSU ranks among the top five universities for enrollment of Saudi Arabian exchange students.
The number of Saudis attending CSU has risen partly due to scholarships from the Saudi government that dole out full-ride tuition packages but also for the place’s attitude.
“Our reputation is as a place that has always been welcoming to Saudi students,” said Jim Cooney, associate provost and director of international programs. “We are almost setting the example for other universities.”
Students from Saudi Arabia agree that CSU is a positive place to experience college life in America.
“I don’t feel judged, especially in Fort Collins,” said Moaathe Almanie, a freshmen information systems major “Here, I feel welcomed.”
Upon arriving at CSU, foreign students who need help learning the English language enter the Intensive English Program and are given personalized attention until they are fluent enough to enroll in classes.
Cooney said the transition from the program to becoming part of a student body of about 25,000 is often very difficult.
“The complaint that I hear most often is that they are not meeting as many American students as they want to,” Cooney said. “They still feel outside the mainstream of the university.”
Zaki Safar, a senior electrical engineering major from Medina, Saudi Arabia said his experience at CSU has been a difficult but positive transition.
There have been many cultural differences that Safar has adjusted to, he said, including women’s attire and the weather.
“The first two days I loved the snow, but now I am gritting my teeth and pulling out my hair,” Safar said.
Another difficult transition is writing from left to right, as Arabic is written from right to left.
Cultural Perceptions and Diversity
Those labeled as Middle Eastern come from a range of countries and cultures that vary greatly in how they perceive American culture.
“Avoiding generalizations is the key to cultural understanding,” said Mohammed Hirchi, an Arabic professor at CSU.
Cooney says he is excited to have such high numbers of Saudi students at CSU.
“I’m particularly eager to get students from the Middle East and Africa because I don’t think we have enough exposure to them,” Cooney said.
The presence of Saudi students at CSU can be a positive experience in cultural acceptance for American students as well, he said.
“I think having more international students on campus is great,” Cooney said. “American students will have more informed judgment.”
The social scene in Saudi Arabia has its similarities to the U.S., but alcohol is illegal there, which makes the party culture found at American colleges a new experience.
“I’m not much of a party guy,” said Abdullah Bogary, a freshmen open option major seeking engineering. Bogary is from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and has been in the U.S. for one year.
Rather than partying, Bogary says many young Saudis participate in activities such as soccer, videogames and card games.
Hirchi said one of the more noticeable cultural differences for students from the Middle East is the lack of mosques.
“The mosque is a place where people can meet and discuss similar values,” Hirchi said.
Mosques act as a meeting place for Muslims, where people who share similar background and beliefs can come together.
Some Saudi students say they are more understanding and accepting of Americans after being immersed in the culture.
Despite living in an overwhelmingly Christian community, many Saudi students said they do not feel pressure to conform religiously.
“The Koran tells believers not to insult or cast out any other deity, not to kill them or deprive them of property,” Safar said. “I am more independent and understanding about the way Americans think about Arabs and Muslims.”
Safar said he has conversed with students of other faiths and religions and has walked away feeling free of judgment.
Media and Stereotypes
Although Saudi students may like the American way of life, it can be difficult to watch the U.S. military participate in violence near their homeland.
“I’m not really comfortable with the war going on,” Almanie said.
The lack of understanding among Americans and inaccurate media coverage bothers many Saudis.
“Americans view us in a very negative way because of all the lies spread by the media, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” Safar said. “People have a tendency to mix culture with religion.”
When perceptions are based off of misconceptions and generalizations it can be frustrating.
“We should try to promote reality through individuals,” Hirchi said. “Not what we see on TV.”
Safar says the teachings of Islam do not promote terrorism or hatred, an idea some people outside the Arab world have embraced.
“When I see the media coverage of terrorists and suicide bombings, I wonder if that is a different Islam than I know,” Safar said.
Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations experience terrorist threats from extremist Islamic groups just like the rest of the world, Almanie said, adding that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were upsetting to many Arabs.
“After 9/11 my Dad’s eyes were filled with tears,” Safar said. “Everyone was in complete shock.”
Safar said that after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, pressure was put on Arabs to counter the stereotypes they were assigned.
“Most of the Middle East isn’t dangerous,” Almanie said. “A few bad apples ruined it for the rest of us.”
The Post-9/11 World
After Sept. 11, 2001, many people of Middle Eastern decent reported problems getting through airports across the world.
Almanie and Bogary said it takes them three times as long to get through the visa process as those of other nationalities and that they can expect to be stopped almost every time they go to the airport.
“If I have to go through that I’m fine, but don’t tell me it’s random,” Almanie said.
Bogary recalled a time when he was subject to extra security screening in Denver and then pulled aside again in Washington D.C. the next day after missing his connecting flight. Bogary pointed out to inspectors that he underwent extra screening the day before but was told the searches were random and that he was coincidentally chosen two days in a row.
Safar participated in Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, and afterward flew through JFK airport back to the U.S. The airport was filled with Arabs and many of them were taken aside for questioning, he said.
“I literally feel like I am wearing the orange suit they wear in prisons, and all the wrong I have done is carrying a Saudi passport,” Safar said.
Although it can be a difficult transition and there may always be some level of cultural conflict, college in the U.S. is a positive experience for many Saudi students.
“I love the American way,” Almanie said.
Staff writers Emily Lance and Emily Polak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.