Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission allows students to pursue education at UIndy

Despite being a relatively small college, the University of Indianapolis boasts a diverse population, with more than 64 countries  represented by students, faculty and staff. The largest population of international students on campus, comprised of more than 100 students, comes from Saudi Arabia.

The high number of Saudi Arabian students present at the university is largely a result of the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, an organization tasked with helping Saudi students study in the United States. The mission of SACM, as stated on their website, is to implement “national educational and training policies to provide our country with qualified individuals capable of achieving the country’s goals of progress and development.” In layman’s terms, SACM encourages Saudi students to study in the United States, return to Saudi Arabia with the knowledge they have gained and use it to contribute to Saudi society.

To qualify for SACM, students must show a high level of English-speaking and general academic ability. Junior supply chain management major Mashaer Musayri, who comes from the city of Al-Qatif, said the process that students must go through to study in the United States is extensive.

“First, I had to take an English language course that I had to study for first at Internexus, which is like an English language school for international students. And then I had to take a test, like a placement test,” Musayri said. “I need[ed] to speak English well, and I need[ed] to have high grades, like in my high school, which I already had. So I didn’t need to do anything else. [But] students who don’t have high grades, first, they have to go to like Ivy Tech to get high grades in math and science before they go to college [elsewhere].”

The reason for such requirements is that the SACM program is incredibly extensive, according to Associate Director of International Services Geri Watson. The organization pays for students’ tuition, housing, living expenses, insurance and even includes dependents if students have spouses or children. Because the sponsorship is so extensive, however, students must operate within strict parameters set by the program. Changing majors or making other adjustments to scheduling, Watson said, can be challenging for students.

“Everything is orchestrated by SACM, and they have to follow all the rules surrounding the parameters of the scholarships that they were given,” Watson said. “And if they want to make changes, it all has to be approved by SACM.”

Once changes are approved by SACM, they become the priority of International Services. Watson described herself as international students’ “mom away from home,” explaining that once students are admitted to the university and are no longer the responsibility of the Office of Admissions, she handles everything from immigration reports to even the smallest aspects of everyday life, like helping a student find a dentist for a toothache or walking through how to apply for a driver’s license.

Graphic by Abby Land and Ethan Gerling

There are many rules and regulations that all international students have to follow in order to retain their F1 immigration status, which designates them as legal students in the United States, Watson said. For example, a stipulation of the SACM scholarship package is that students make “normal progress” toward their designated degree.

Consequently, international students are not allowed to hold conventional off-campus employment and, perhaps most importantly, must maintain full-time enrollment at the university. Full-time enrollment for undergraduates is a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester to retain the rights granted by their student Form I-20, which is a “Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Student Status” issued by the Department of Homeland Security. If a student drops below that level without authorization from an academic adviser, they fall out of status and must either apply for reinstatement or leave the country.

“When students come, they have a start date, [and] they have a designated end date. For an undergrad [freshman], they’re going to get a four-year I-20. That’s when they’re supposed to complete their program,” Watson said. “If they don’t—you drop a class, you fail a class, there’s many reasons why students don’t complete their programs within a certain length of time—they have to extend their I-20.”

Watson said that her primary responsibility is to update students’ progress in a database called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System where data concerning visitors to the United States is shared between government agencies like the Bureau of Motor Vehicles or Social Security Administration.

“SEVIS is what was invented after Sept. 11, 2001 to track international students and visitors from the time that they enter the country and they go through the port of entry until they leave,” Watson said. “For every student, every semester, we have to let immigration know that they are here, that they are enrolled full time, they’re following all the rules and maintaining their status.”

The academic progress of students is also monitored.

Academic Advisor Kelly Maxwell, who works with many Saudi Arabian students, explained that he updates SACM officials each semester on the status of students who he advises.

“That’s one of the other things that we [CASA advisors] work with SACM students on. We provide SACM letters,” Maxwell said. “This is basically a way of updating the Saudi government of their status as a student. So one of the main things that they are looking for there is that the student is progressing through their coursework and staying on track to the designated graduation time that they were given for their scholarship.”

Because UIndy is a small university located in the Midwest, it may seem like an unlikely attraction for international students. When SACM first started sending large numbers students to the United States in 2011, Watson said, students favored large universities like Indiana University or Purdue University. As those schools became more saturated, however, SACM restricted the number of students admitted to those universities, and so the population filtered down to smaller campuses like UIndy,  according to Watson.

For Musayri, the welcoming atmosphere of the small university is one of its greatest attributes. Especially when it comes to perfecting her language skills, Musayri said she appreciates the patience and encouragement shown to her by professors, coworkers and fellow students.

“I was scared when I first came here, [because] what I heard was when you first come here, you do everything independently. And first of all, you need to have the language to do anything you want, because you can’t do anything without the language. And that was the scariest thing to me, because I needed to learn, and if I didn’t, I would lose,” Musayri said. “And I feel like here, UIndy especially, UIndy gives you the opportunity. Teachers, they don’t make fun of you when you talk or something….That’s what I like here the most. You have the opportunity, you feel encouraged by the people around you to do whatever you want.”

The benefits of the Saudi population on campus, however, are not limited to the students, according to Watson. She said that her favorite part of working in International Services is that in addition to helping students adjust to American culture, she learns about other cultures from them.

“I have the best job on campus—there’s no doubt about that—because the whole world comes right to my door,” Watson said. “Developing an understanding for how big of a step they [Saudi students] have taken to leave their country that is so culturally different than ours….And trying to develop an appreciation for what they’re going through coming here and living in our culture and then having to go back home and return to the culture that they came from. I like to think that they are going to take what they learned here and go home and have a positive influence on changes they want to see made in their country.”

For Faris Al Sharyah, a junior operations and supply chain management major from the city of Njaran, studying so far from home was an appealing option because it forced him to focus solely on his studies, improve his English-speaking abilities and become more independent.

“In the city that I live in… we are like a busy society. So I thought, I’m not going to be successful at the university if I study back home, because I will be busy over there,” Al Sharyah said. “But if I leave and come to the states and experience the new culture, new language, be on my own [I will be successful]. Overall, I just wanted to be independent.”

Al Sharyah came to the United States three months after finishing high school and currently lives with an American family in Indianapolis. He said that being immersed in the culture has been helpful for him, but that challenges still present themselves.

“You’ve got to watch out to not be rude,” Al Sharyah said. “Sometimes we accept things in our culture that are the opposite of what you guys accept in yours.”

Musayri also said that she has had to become acquainted with American social customs. For example, she said that casual touches like handshakes and learning to show more expression during conversations were adjustments she had to make.

“When I came here, it was hard to talk to people because some people think that I am serious when I talk. And I feel like I am normal, this is me,” she said. “Here, you need to give people more reactions, show them your face reactions, speak to them, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you want. This is not me. I am not like a social person, but I tried to learn that here. I tried to ask and talk and don’t be afraid just to ask for help or to ask your teacher about a question or something or talk to them about your personal life sometimes.”

Overcoming these kinds of cultural and linguistic barriers, Maxwell said, is what he most admires about the Saudi Arabian students that he interacts with.

“When I think of the Saudi students, I just think of how much grit that they have to be in another country, speaking a language that’s not their own, and having to put up with the weather—all these different things that a lot of the people here are just kind of used to and it’s nothing to them,” Maxwell said. “I love working with my SACM students because of that; they have a lot of fight, which I like, for sure.”

Other UIndy students also should not hesitate to ask Saudi Arabian students about their culture, Musayri said. She holds an on-campus job and said that while she learns about American culture from the people around her, she also enjoys teaching her co-workers about the customs of her home country.

“They [UIndy] make me feel like I’m part of them,” Musayri said. “Right now I’m working on a job, a campus job. And I feel like even my staff members who are with me in my job, they like me. They talk to me, they ask me questions about my country, and that’s the most part I like. I like people to ask me a question about my country, about Saudi Arabia.”