Faces of Many
Religious diversity has a long history at St. Edward’s. A recent influx of students from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries continues to make the hilltop a place where many cultures find a home.
By Joel Hoekstra | Photos by Jessica Attie
James Puglisi was passing through Ragsdale Center recently when he saw something that caught his attention: Two rugby players were sitting at a table, talking. One was a Muslim from Saudi Arabia, the other was a Jewish student from Zimbabwe. “They were hanging out. They play sports together. They’ve become friends,” says Puglisi, associate director of Campus Ministry. “It goes against the stereotype of what everyone thinks Jewish-Muslim relationships are.”
International students have long been part of the St. Edward’s community. But an influx of students from the Middle East has significantly altered the look and feel of the campus in recent years. The university has long attracted students from Bahrain, Lebanon, Turkey, Qatar and even Libya, but since 2010, more than 50 men and women from Saudi Arabia have enrolled at St. Edward’s. It’s become commonplace to see a young woman wearing a headscarf in a literature class or to hear Arabic as a group of students enters a residence hall.
The new faces and perspectives have changed life for everyone on campus. Like America itself, the university’s faculty and students increasingly find themselves engaged in a dialogue about the politics, people, customs and culture of the Middle East. Such conversations are often challenging but illuminating, fostering the kind of education that can’t always be taught in classrooms.
“I think St. Edward’s is a very welcoming place — welcoming of religious and ethnic diversity,” says Erin Ray, an academic counselor with the office of Academic Planning and Support Services, who teaches a first-year seminar for international students. “But this is not a population that has been well-represented on campus in the past, so I think we’re having an opportunity to demonstrate and experience a new facet of diversity on campus.”
Many American colleges and universities have seen an uptick in enrollment of students from Saudi Arabia in recent years. According to Open Doors, a research service that tracks international students studying in the United States, the number of Saudi students in America grew from 22,704 during the 2010–2011 academic year to 34,139 in 2011–2012 — an increase of more than 50 percent.
A scholarship program established by King Abdullah in 2005 has fueled much of this growth: The initiative pays for 18 months of language training and up to four years of undergraduate education at eligible American institutions if Saudi students promise to return to work for the government for five years after graduation. In 2010, St. Edward’s was added to the list of eligible schools. Thirty-four Saudi undergraduate students enrolled at the university for Fall 2012. (Overall, students from Middle Eastern countries account for roughly 20 percent of the school’s international population.)
Assistant Director of Admission David Bernay says he typically spends about two weeks each year recruiting students in the Middle East, visiting high schools in countries including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Prospective students from these countries often want to know the same things their American counterparts do: “They want to know what majors are offered. They want to know about the campus. They want to know what the city is like,” Bernay says. “Most teenagers are interested in culture, music, art, sports, digital media.” Austin’s climate, music scene and reputation as a fertile place for digital start-ups help make St. Edward’s an easy sell, he adds.
Such amenities certainly helped lure Mashael Jumaiah ’16 to Austin from Saudi Arabia in 2010. But it was the prospect of a hands-on education at St. Edward’s that convinced her to enroll at the university last spring. “I liked Austin, and I heard that St. Edward’s had small classes, so I’d get individual attention from teachers,” says Jumaiah, who is studying Communications and plans to work in public relations or advertising. “Everyone here is so nice. People are helpful and friendly. That really surprised me.” She has since persuaded her younger sister, Norah, to attend the university, too.
Among Saudi students, the most popular majors are Economics and Computer Science. Others have chosen to focus on the social sciences and even English literature. Bernay notes, however, that —for better or worse — St. Edward’s lacks one course of study that attracts many Middle Eastern students to the United States, and Texas in particular: petroleum engineering.
Campus life can be full of challenges — and even well-prepared Americans often encounter an unexpected situation or two during their first few weeks at college. But for international students, and for students from the Middle East in particular, those challenges can be formidable. There are language barriers and cultural divides.
Expectations and customs at St. Edward’s are different than what Saudi students are used to. Class schedules and Muslim prayer times sometimes conflict.
Associate Professor of History Mity Myhr, who teaches a first year seminar for international students that aims to facilitate their academic and cultural transition to the university, says many Middle Eastern students require instruction in the expectations that underlie the St. Edward’s experience. In class and during office hours —with both American and international students — she regularly underscores the importance of attending every class, showing up on time and learning to read a syllabus. “Professors here expect students to participate,” Myhr says. “That is not the case at many universities, which often have large lectures and focus on an end-of-semester final exam or paper.”
Ray, who co-teaches the seminar with Myhr, says she often fields questions about cultural differences when she meets with Middle Eastern students. “They’re well-adapted, but they’re still learning the ropes of American culture,” she says. Middle Eastern students can be surprised by the informality of American college students, in conversation and in clothing. People are willing to talk about everything — and wear almost nothing.
Michele Moragne e Silva, an assistant professor of English Writing and Rhetoric who has taught many freshman composition courses for international students, says Middle Eastern students also struggle to express themselves. Some of this is due to language (“Many of the Saudi students arrive with [English] language skills that are much lower than we currently see in, say, the Bahraini population,” she notes).
But students from Arab states have always had a tendency to self-censor, says Moragne e Silva: “When they first arrive, they often worry about who’s going to read their papers. It takes a while before they’re comfortable giving their opinions in class.”
Meals and Mosques
Diversity at St. Edward’s is a two-way street. In the classroom, faculty members have aimed to integrate the perspectives of Middle Eastern students into the larger conversation. Elsewhere on campus, administrators and staff seek to accommodate by catering to the dietary preferences and religious requirements of the Middle Eastern population.
The overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern students at St. Edward’s are Muslim. Those who follow Islam must say prayers five times a day and are forbidden from consuming pork or alcohol.
For Bon Appétit, the food-service operator that runs the campus cafeteria, Islamic dietary rules have proven challenging. The company provides several vegetarian options at each meal, but as the Saudi and Bahraini populations have grown, requests for dishes like tabbouleh, falafel and baba ghanouj have increased. “We try to pay attention to what students want to eat,” says General Manager Michael Smith.
“So lately, we’ve been asking the Saudi students what they like. What are the comfort foods of their culture?”
It’s unlikely that an operation as big as Bon Appétit can comply with halal — the rules that govern Islamic dietary law. But in late January, the company did begin serving up a traditional Middle Eastern dish as a part of St. Edward’s Friday dinner lineup. The initial offering of al kabsa — “a chicken dish braised in a tomato sauce flavored with Arabic spices, such as saffron, cumin, cinnamon and nutmeg, served over basmati rice cooked with raisins and shaved almonds,” according to Executive Chef Elvin Lubrin — sold out.
“There were several students who said it was phenomenal, just like back home,” Smith crows. He and Lubrin have met repeatedly with several small groups of Middle Eastern students in hopes of developing even more culturally appropriate options. Across campus in the Woodward Office Building, Room 144 has been designated as a prayer room — or mosque — for Muslim students. In fact, St. Edward’s has had a designated mosque in various locations since the mid-1970s, but the sacred space never got much use. The influx of international Saudi and Bahraini students on campus, as well as an increase of American Muslim students, ultimately led administrators to find a new space for the mosque about three years ago. Now, even that space is often filled to capacity, according to Mohammad Mahmud Abu-Esba ’15, a sophomore who serves as head of the Muslim Student Association. Friday prayers often draw Muslims from off-campus, as well as non-Muslim students seeking to further their understanding of Islam.
“The mosque is very important for Muslim students, specifically the international Arab students,” says Abu-Esba. “This is where they find religion. This is where they’re comfortable. This is where they find others who are like them.”
Questions and Connections
Differences in the Middle East often spark confrontation and conflict. But at St. Edward’s, the addition of Saudi, Bahraini, Qatari and Israeli viewpoints has kindled conversations and connections.
Hebah Hajar ’16, a native of Saudi Arabia who moved to Austin with her husband in 2010 and is studying Computer Science, says she misses her family and friends back home, but she has been impressed by the friendliness of the students, faculty, and staff at the university.
“Everyone here is so nice and willing to help,” she says. The presence of Middle Eastern students has also impacted life in the classroom. Last fall, Selin Guner, an assistant professor of Global Studies, taught a course called Middle East Society that attracted not only American students but also four students from Bahrain.
Three of those students were Sunni and one was Shiite. A debate arose over the size of the minority Shiite population in Bahrain. The two sides failed to reach agreement, but the professor thinks both groups were changed by the discussion. “Middle Eastern cultures are very different,” says Guner, a native of Turkey. “Students are not encouraged to freely express their beliefs as much as they [are] at St. Edward’s. Religious and political differences exist, but you don’t really talk about them. At a university like St. Edward’s, on the other hand, you are not only allowed but encouraged to express your point of view.”
And such discussions can lead to transformations. The presence of Saudi students on campus has certainly had an effect on Noah Meicler ’13, a Global Studies major from Houston whose parents are Israeli. Initially, he admits, he was wary of the Arab students in class. “Because of where they were from, I assumed that their views on Israel would be different than mine,” Meicler says. As the weeks passed, however, he made up his mind to engage the Bahrainis.
When he saw the Bahraini students off-campus, he went out of his way to say hello. In Guner’s class, he made a point of engaging and helping his Middle Eastern classmates. By the end of the semester, he and one of the Arab students — to Meicler’s surprise — had become friends.
“Today when I see him, we talk,” Meicler says. “We see eye to eye on many things. In many ways, we’ve broken down the barriers. We’ve gotten past the stereotypes.”