Saudi scholars reflect on education in America

A group of BLCSI scholars with TESL professor Ryan Miller, second from the left in the back row.

Erica Fowler

Ali Aljanobi and Ahmed Alsalman experienced many aspects of American culture since they arrived at Kent State from Saudi Arabia in February.

“One of the things that we noticed is that American people are so friendly,” Aljanobi said.

“They are so friendly and nice,” Alsalman added. “They are welcoming people.” Aljanobi and Alsalman are part of the Building Leadership for Change through School Immersion (BLCSI), a program that allowed 43 teachers from Saudi Arabia to study at Kent State and learn about education in the United States. The Saudi teachers and their families came to the United States through a grant funded by their government as part of the country’s plan for education reform.

“Change is going to be in the future in Saudi Arabia,” Aljanobi said. “This program is one of the things that will change so many things in the educational system.”

Aljanobi and Alsalman, along with other Saudi teachers in the program, are each paired with a host teacher at a school in Northeast Ohio. At their field sites, the scholars are immersed in the American teaching system.

“I like the students in the school, and they are very friendly,” scholar Nasser Alanazi said. “Sometimes if I leave early, the students ask the teacher about me. And then when I come back the next day, they ask me, ‘Where have you been?’ They are very respectable people.”

Alanazi, Aljanobi and Alsalman all teach English as a second language, or ESL, at various grade levels in Saudi Arabia. All three scholars have observed differences between education in the United States and Saudi Arabia.

“Special education is emphasized and well taken care of,” Alsalman said. “Students with special needs are given the priority and are immersed with what we said, mainstream classes and students.” 

This is something that Alsalman values as his 6-year-old daughter has special needs.

“I was concerned about my daughter’s education,” Alsalman said. She has cognitive delay, but thankfully she joined the school here. She has a speech therapist pathologist, special needs teacher and ESL teacher. She is in the mainstream classroom with other students.”

Alsalman, who also has a 3-year-old son, said adjusting to America has been a smooth and enriching experience for his family.

“It’s a good opportunity for our kids to exchange cultures,” Alsalman said.

For scholar and ESL teacher Wejdan Almarou, the transition to American life has been surprising.

“We are familiar with American culture from the movies and the media, but being here is a little bit different,” Almarou said. “In the media, they show us that Americans do not accept the hijab and some Muslims. But when I came here, they were very friendly, and this is a good experience.”

Visiting schools in America has been the biggest highlight about the BLCSI program as schools are a lot bigger in the United States, Almarou said.

“I teach in a village far away; it’s like a village in the desert,” said Almarou. “It’s like one hour and 30 minutes from my house. It’s really small school: it’s elementary, middle and high school with only 54 students.”

Almarou’s field site is at Cuyahoga Falls High School which has about 1,600 students.

“This is a big, very big, difference that I have noticed,” Almarou said.

Additionally, Saudi Arabian teachers in the BLCSI program audit graduate classes at Kent State to expand their knowledge on best practices of teaching. Furthermore, they attend various professional conferences such as the TESOL Convention to develop their teaching skills.

The Saudi Ministry of Education also sent teachers to other countries like New Zealand, Australia and Canada as well as the United States. 

“Last year was the first time (Saudi Arabia) did the program in the U.S.,” said Ebed Sulbaran, the program manager of BLCSI. “Kent State was one of three universities to be selected to host teachers.”

This year, 16 universities across the United States were selected to host teachers. Specifically, at Kent State, there are 43 teachers in the program. 

Making a difference through education is the main goal and best part of the BLCSI program to Steve Mitchell, the associate dean of graduate education in the College of Education, Health and Human Services.

“I think it’s knowing that we can truly have an impact on what happens within an education system in another country,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell was part of the grant writing team that proposed the BLCSI program to the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia.

“Education is so important,” Mitchell said. “You can build infrastructure, you can build buildings, roads and bridges; those types of things. But until you change the way of thinking in a society, through education, not really much changes.

Ericka Fowler is the education, health and human services reporter. Contact her at [email protected].