Universities throughout the U.S. are trying to increase their international student population, and WKU is no different. For years at WKU, Indian and Chinese students made up the largest international student groups, but that has since changed. There are now more students from Saudi Arabia on WKU’s campus than from any other country outside the U.S.
Signs of the Saudi presence in the community can often be seen at a place where the Saudi students love to congregate: on the local soccer fields.
An example of this recently took place on a beautiful early Wednesday evening at the Lover’s Lane soccer complex in Bowling Green. On one of the many fields there, a group of young men started to form teams and take practice shots on goal. They were WKU students from Saudi Arabia, and they met that evening because one of them, undergrad student Naif Albaiji, put the word out on Facebook the night before to meet up for a game.
“So I just posted that last night, and look,” says Naif, as he gestures to the dozens of Saudi students on the field and arriving in cars. “They’re coming. I really like it here.”
Support from the King
Naif is one of an estimated 274 Saudi students on WKU’s campus this semester. And like virtually all of them, Naif is here on a full scholarship funded by Saudi government. In 2005, Saudi King Abdullah launched an international scholarship program, designed to get as many of the kingdom’s young people as possible to enroll in western universities.
The Director of International Student and Scholar Services at WKU says the school, like so many others, is happy to help King Abdullah fulfill that goal. Dr. Tarek Elshayeb says WKU is proud of its growing Saudi student population.
“Recruiting international students is not an easy task, no matter how big the name of the school is. It has always been competitive, because there are so many universities who are aggressively recruiting international students,” says Dr. Elshayeb.
Financial Benefits for U.S. Universities
While international students contribute to a campus’s diversity, they also contribute to the coffers of schools like WKU. International students can’t qualify for the kind of state or U.S. federal aid that a student from Kentucky or Tennessee might receive. So that means internationals usually pay the entire sticker price of about $32,000 a year for an undergraduate education, with graduate students paying over $28,000 a year.
So how does an aspiring Saudi college student come to choose WKU? Public Administration Graduate student Abdulrahman Alfurhud went into an agent’s office in the Saudi capital Riyadh who specializes in placing Saudi students in western universities. Abdulrahman says after telling the agent what he wanted to study and what kind of city he wanted to live in, the agent suggested WKU.
“Because I like the quiet city, especially when I’m a student,” says Abdulrahman. “And it’s not that expensive. Also, it has a very beautiful environment, in general. The weather is good.”
Abdulrhaman says he appreciates the openness and accessibility of U.S. professors and feels completely accepted by the WKU campus and surrounding community. He’s making the most of his time in America. Abdulrhaman joined a few of his fellow Saudi students on a road trip that stretched from Bowling Green to San Diego, California and back. He’s a regular at Sinbad’s, a restaurant near campus that serves Middle Eastern food like kabsa, a lamb and rice dish served with traditional spices.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m sitting in the United States and enjoying kabsa, which is the main dish in Saudi Arabia,” Abdulrahman says.
Abdulrahman says a big reason why WKU’s Saudi student population has increased is positive word-of-mouth. Students come to Bowling Green, enjoy the experience, tell their friends and relatives back home, and more come as a result.
For Faisal Alzomily, WKU is already a family affair. He and his wife are both graduate students here, and they have a daughter who was born in Bowling Green. Faisal wants to get a Ph.D in the U.S. before returning home to a job in the Saudi Finance Ministry.
“I want to help my job to be better than before, to take what I’ve studied and what I’ve learned here and take it back to my home,” he says.
Still, Faisal also admits part of him wants to remain in his adopted home in Kentucky.
“You know, I would like to stay here in Bowling Green.”
Taking the Bad with the Good
Not every Saudi student has a perfect experience here, however.
Naif Albaiji, the undergrad who organized the Saudi student soccer match, says he has been harassed in Bowling Green’s fountain square area, with someone recently calling him an “Indian Muslim” who should “go back home.” Naif says he brushed off the comments, and adds you can find ignorant people anywhere in the world.
Despite that run-in downtown, Naif says he likes life at WKU enough to recommend it to five cousins who are now studying here. Naif says he’ll go back to Saudi Arabia once he’s done with his higher education. And then what?
“I’ll go back, find a job.” Naif pauses for a second. “Then send my children back here,” he says with a laugh.