Objective: Gain fluency in a drastically different language in 18 months, starting from scratch. Fail and you’re cut off.
Even for a seasoned scholar of linguistics, that’s a tall order. But for first-year University of Montana students from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it’s the standard to aim for. That’s because the Saudi state-run scholarship that pays their tuition gives incoming students only a year and a half to conquer the UM’s rigorous English proficiency requirements. When the time lapses, so does the money.
Many observers on campus cite this as the main cause for a precipitous decline in Saudi enrollment over the past few years.
“It’s definitely the TOEFL,” says Saudi student David Alaasaf, referring to the Test of English as a Foreign Language, a nationwide English proficiency exam administered to international students.
To meet UM’s lofty TOEFL threshold—a score of 500—the students conditionally admitted to UM must first head to the English Language Institute (ELI). There, the idea is to engage in an immersion program until they’re proven proficient. But, according to Muslim Student Association president Saleh Alharthi, the time constraints imposed by Riyadh instead prompts many Saudi students to transfer to community colleges, which have lower TOEFL score standards.
“In the last six months, especially, you feel really under pressure because you don’t want to lose the scholarship,” explains Alharthi, who is Saudi.
A 2005 agreement between President Bush and King Abdullah, which made it much easier for Saudis to gain entry to the United States for education, triggered a deluge of such students into American college towns. Homeland Security reports released last year place the total at a hair less than 10,000. The University of Montana pushed hard to win Saudi students and, at one point, landed as many as 80. Yet, the ink had barely dried on the articles lauding the university’s recruiting efforts when the numbers curiously began to fall.
Evidence first started piling up from the anecdotal side—via students reporting a declining Saudi presence on campus—before university officials acknowledged the waning figures.
The TOEFL challenges aside, the trend is considered somewhat of a black mark for ELI—a body established specifically to deliver passing TOEFL scores.
Jana Hood, the ELI director, disagrees that test scores alone led to the Saudi attrition. She says that another contributor was a decline in the number of undergraduate scholarships offered by the Saudi embassy—perhaps due to a high failure rate in the first group of students to come to Missoula.
“I think that the embassy started re-looking at the way they gave out those scholarships,” Hood says. “They started being more careful.”
The embassy’s Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests to elaborate on the status of its scholarship program. However, a study conducted this fall by a research arm of the Institute of International Education shows that only 13 percent of 700 American campuses polled by the agency reporting a downward trend in Saudi enrollment, which means UM’s experience is not the reality nationwide.
The apparent disparity led the Independent to ask almost a dozen staffers and administrators connected to the university’s Office of International Programs to comment on the Saudi slump. Several, but not all, speculated that ELI dropped the ball in processing the massive influx of students. (All declined to formally go on the record due to the university’s strict media policy, which generally allows only department heads or other top officials to comment.)
International Programs head Mehrdad Kia points to the institute’s high success rate among foreign students worldwide, but admits the Saudis provide a unique challenge.
“It’s a huge cultural and educational shock,” Kia says of the Saudi transition from Islamic to secular society and to American academic standards. “This education system is more disciplined than what they’re used to; much more demanding; much more organized in what is expected.”
Those who work most closely with the Saudis describe insularity within the community. They suggest that the students just don’t leave their circle enough to succeed in an immersion language program. The topic hardly evokes a willing discussion when students are approached by a reporter, but some Saudis point to cultural intolerance as a possible cause.
Most in Missoula recall the political brine from the Pickle Barrel incident, where a Saudi was denied service at a local restaurant. In a more recent and less publicized event, witnesses say a white student beat up a Middle Easterner at the Feb. 1 Foresters’ Ball at Schreiber Gym. Police and municipal court records indicate that the incident did take place and that the 20-year-old suspect was charged with assault.
“As a foreign student advisor, I sometimes go between loving my country and hating it,” one campus staffer laments. “I think, on the whole, people in Missoula really try.”
As far as social climates or ELI screw-ups inhibiting Saudi emersion, Arabic language professor Samir Bitar doesn’t go for either theory.
“The American expression is, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,’” Bitar says. “What you end up with is really what you teach yourself.”