College for many international students starts with intensive English. Reading and writing instructor Barbara Dowling is used to hearing a potpourri of accents. But this quarter, her Oregon State University students come overwhelmingly from one place, Saudi Arabia.
It's a huge turnaround. After the terrorist attacks in September of 2001, nearly all the Saudi students studying in the United States went home for fear of being caught in an anti-Arab backlash.
Last year, the Saudi government decided to try to repair relations with people-to-people contact. "I think a country's best ambassadors are their people," says Saudi embassy spokesman Nail Al-Jubeir, adding that a scholarship program will expose Americans to ordinary, friendly Saudis. "And in this case, we have the best and brightest who are coming to study here, to learn about America, what America is first hand." And that leads to the more important goal, says Al-Jubeir: to foster a more favorable view at home of the monarchy's partnership with America.
"We have a generation that graduated from the U.S. whose children in the last four or five years have never been here and we're trying to encourage them to come to the U.S." he explains. "What we're seeing is a new generation that is coming of age, that is learning what America is on television. Unfortunately, that is not what America is."
Al-Jubeir says the Kingdom plans to award 20,000 scholarships over the next four years -- each one covering full tuition, room, and board.
But one Middle East expert in Washington suggests it would take political breakthroughs, like an end to the Iraq War or a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to reduce ill will significantly. Nevertheless, retired Ambassador Phil Wilcox welcomes the Saudi student resurgence. "Twenty thousand more students is a lot of students," he observes. "Presumably, [after] the benefit of higher education in this country they'll go back into senior positions in business and government and academia in Saudi Arabia and that would have a positive change in their society."
They've already brought about a positive change in Oregon. The director of OSU's English Language Institute, Deborah Healey, has 88 Saudis enrolled this quarter, the most since the early 1980's. "It's really a good deal for the state and helps subsidize the domestic students by having other people who pay the full ride. So we are doing our bit to balance the trade deficit," she laughs.
The new enrollees are not helping balance the gender distribution on campus, though. Healey says the vast majority of the Saudi students coming over are male. "Women really can't travel without a chaperone. We have at least one who came with her brother. So he was also admitted as a student and that enabled her to come. Her family would not worry about her that way."
Personal recommendations seem to play a big role in how students pick their schools. Fahad Al Mohazey, 20, compared Michigan State and Oregon State and ended up here in Corvallis, "because my friend told me it is a quiet city, a nice city. The weather is not so bad, except the rain."
The moisture -- and the lush greenery that results -- are actually a major attraction for some of his cohorts. Al Mohazey says he wasn't scared to come to the U.S. because he believes Americans no longer equate Arabs with terrorism. "I think everything is cool right now," he says. "I am very welcome here. I feel that the Corvallis people are very kindful and nice with me." Al Mohazey is taking intensive English before pursuing studies in accounting at OSU.
Maha Mohamed, 23, says she's here because her American-educated father spoke highly of Oregon. " I might take my masters in computer sciences and a M.B.A." she says. She wears a headscarf in the computer lab, but otherwise blends in with a Western style sweater and dressy pants. She explains that her family was not worried about sending her to the United States. "I am married. My husband is with me." He is also a student at OSU. Mohamed says she hopes to open her own business when she gets back home.
The first wave of Saudi scholarship recipients enrolled at colleges in nearly every state of the union, making the influx a nationwide phenomenon. Saudi students are on track to become one of the biggest foreign contingents at the University of Arkansas. Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, has seven presently enrolled, but expects to go as high as 80 over the next few years.
Administrators say the numbers would have been even higher this winter were it not for visa troubles. Student visa applicants undergo extensive background checks and must appear at a consulate for an in-person interview. However, at the same time that more Saudis hope to attend U.S. schools, on-going security threats have forced a reduction in U.S. consulate staffing around the Kingdom.