Life on the other side of the world

Megan Stanard works on a project inside Effat University in Saudi Arabia.

Rachel Hale

Before Megan Stanard got off the plane to start her semester in Saudi Arabia, she worried about showing her hair or being dressed modestly enough. She quickly pulled out a winter scarf and wrapped it around her head.

Megan and classmate Ashley Gilson rushed through a loud, busy airport filled with military personnel. They waited in line to get fingerprints and photos taken before being thrown into their new home for the next four months.

Megan and Ashley, senior architecture majors, spent their spring semester studying abroad in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where about every fifth person they encountered spoke English.

They found life in Saudi Arabia different — but not all that different —to their life in America. They found many people who would become family.

“We didn’t know what to expect, it was so comforting,” Megan said. “Everyone had wide-open arms for us, they treated us like family.”

A campus of women

Ashley and Megan attended Effat University, an all-female university in Jeddah, where they studied architecture.

They were the first students from Kent State to study in Saudi Arabia.

Ashley and Megan learned about architecture in a country with a different climate from that they grew up in and regulations than what they learn about in the United States.

Life on campus, Ashley and Megan said, was surprisingly similar to life in Kent. They attended classes, worked on homework and hung out with friends — only it was on the other side of the world.

“We learned a lot about the style of architecture and features they use,” Megan told the Board of Trustees in September. “It was such a unique experience to get to do our studio project in a city like this.”

Saudis grow up learning English, and all classes are taught in English.

In class, Megan and Ashley said Saudi students seemed to control the atmosphere and the professors tended to be more lenient.

“I would never ask for an extension unless it was absolutely necessary,” Ashley said about her classes in Kent.

But at Effat, she would go to class when an assignment was due and her classmates would say to the professor, “‘Doctor, please extend this, please.’ And they actually did,” Ashley said.

They grew very close with their professors.

“The faculty just took care of us,” Ashley said. “I felt like I had so many mothers there.”

The dorms they lived in are far more fancier than in at Kent, Ashley said. Each dorm room had two beds, two desks, a couch, TV and a seperate room with two armoires, a bathroom with two stalls and a double vanity.

And a curfew.

“We had to be back in every night, that’s just the rules,” Megan said. “The women that were working at the door needed to make sure that we were home. We were able to go anywhere that we could. But we had to be back by midnight.”

If they missed curfew, they said, laughing, they would get calls every five minutes from the women working the dorms asking where they were.

The latest they missed curfew was by 30 minutes because their Uber driver got lost.

“We walked in and apologized for being late,” Megan said. “They were mad at us a couple days after that. Every time we went out after that night they would say, ‘Don’t be late!”

Effat University had about a dozen buildings in a small compound. They said they could walk across campus in five minutes, and everything they need for campus is inside the walls.

Ashley described the campus as “stunning … beautiful … clean … private.”

But as soon as they stepped outside the walls of campus, it was different.

“That’s where maintenance stops,” Ashley said. “I was like ‘Oh my God, what am I getting myself into?’ There’s stray cats and litter everywhere.”

A life different from their own

Women in Saudi Arabia traditionally dress very modestly. Most of the time Muslim women wear hijab to covers their head and chest and an abaya, which is a loose full-length overgarment.

“I ended up getting away with wearing a bathing suit cover that was very sheer,” Ashley said. “I think I was told multiple times by people, ‘It’s cute, but it’s not an abaya.’”

Ashley said the way they dressed was like going to dinner with your grandma, very modest and not showing a lot of skin.

“If I wore a crop top, if it would raise just the slightest bit, somebody would always reach over and try to pull my shirt down,” Ashley said.

Most Saudi students didn’t even think twice about the traditional dress, Megan said.

“It’s what they’ve grown up with,” Ashley said.

None of their Saudi friends thought they were oppressed, Megan said.

“And that’s not how it is. It really isn’t. It looks like it from the outside looking in, but they’re a happy country,” Megan said.

Even though they did not dress like Saudis, Megan and Ashley did not feel that they were treated differently.

“Nobody was never not wanting to talk to us because we looked different,” Megan said. “If anything, we just got glances because we weren’t wearing a hijab, but we never felt uncomfortable.”

Sometimes, Ashley said, people treated them nicer because they were not from Saudi Arabia. While they were on the boardwalk, they got a discount on their henna tattoos and pulled them aside and told them to tell their fellow Americans about them.

“They were really emotional about it,” Ashley said. “They were saying, ‘We’re not all horrible people.’ They’re all just people that have families and have people that they care about.”

Time for prayer

Seven times a day, speakers throughout the city echoed a call signaling it was time to pray, and the city would stop.

In their first week, Megan and Ashley were in a store when the call came.

“We were buying sim cards,” Megan said. “We had to hurry up and get out of the store, and they closed the store. We just kind of had to wait around until they reopened and then went back in.”

“Super into America”

Besides the obvious difference of dressing, weather and religion, life felt very similar.

“Everyone’s still doing the same stuff, likes the same things,” Megan said. “They are super into America and watch the same shows and like the same makeup.”

Young Saudis enjoy going to the mall, eating out and going to parties.

“One of the concerts we went to, the crowd was separated from families and singles,” Megan said, “but it was still a huge deal for them to even be there together in the first place. Which is hard for us to imagine, but that’s big steps for them.”

Women stayed in the family section, while males could go into the singles or family section.

“All of the men were leaning right against the fence,” Ashley said. “So, I was leaning against too and this woman said, ‘You need to step back from the fence.’ And I asked why the men were leaning against the fence. She said it wasn’t her job to deal with them. They always seemed a little more lenient with the men.”

Megan said one of her favorite things to do was to go to a beach near Jeddah and just talk with her new friends.

“We would walk and just listen to them,” she said. “We would talk about how their country is changing and pick their brains about their life growing up in their culture and customs.”

Ashley said her favorite thing to do was to get snacks and coffee with her Saudi friends. Ashley’s favorite thing to eat in Jeddah was Shawarma, she described it as a Mediterranean gyro.

“They were excited to show us. It’s something we could bond over because eating is universal,” she said.

Until recently, most women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. But Ashley said her classmates were happy to be driven around instead.

Although their friend’s parents did not speak English fluently, they were caring and genuine when Ashley and Megan visited their homes.

“One of them said, ‘While you’re away, I’m your mom here.’ She even wrote us cards when we left,” Ashley said.

It’s not Florence

Ashley and Megan learned about the Saudi program at an “all college” meeting, where Mark Mistur, dean of the college of architecture and design, talked about this opportunity. That summer, some Effat students had attended classes at Kent State.

Both had planned to go to Florence, but Saudi Arabia sounded much more interesting. And it wasn’t a place they could travel on their own, like Italy. People need special approval to travel there, they said.

A scholarship that helped with the costs made a difference, too.

“I just feel like we had such a different experience because we picked ourselves up and put ourselves as a student in Saudi Arabia, not a whole class in a different country,” Megan said.

Ashley said that at first, her mom did not agree with her studying in Saudi Arabia. But her dad encouraged her to go.  

“He told me you need to see the world,” she said. “You need to explore everything.”

Rachel Hale is the administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected].