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Public education poses challenges, promise for international students

In a year, Hashem Zahrani will return to his wife, his three-year-old daughter and his home in Saudi Arabia with an American public education and a higher-paying job.

“He’s trying to get his degree so when he goes back home he can give them a better life,” said Zahrani’s twin, Hatem.

Hatem, who is now fluent in English and has lived in the U.S. for almost four years, speaks for his brother, who left their native country a year ago.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a private, all-male college, working for five years in a Saudi Arabian hospital, and passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOFEL) and International English Language Testing System (IELTS) entrance exams, Hashem received a government-funded scholarship to attend school in the U.S.

Hatem, a master’s mathematics student at The University, found a graduate nursing program on the school’s website and encouraged his brother to apply. However, in an advising appointment, Hashem met resistance.

“They said they’re not accepting international students,” Hatem said. “…They said, ‘Do it by your own. We cannot help you out.’”

According to The University’s international graduate admissions website, the only requirements for international student acceptance are passing grades (an 80 and a 6.5) on TOFEL or IELTS.

An advisor, Hatem said, told Hashem that if he joins the English Language Institute (ELI) and finishes six levels, then The University can provide acceptance through its partner, The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“It is difficult to get accepted,” Hatem said. “But it is not difficult to get good grades and find a job.”

Unlike his brother, Hatem’s quest for higher education took him first to California, where he completed an international extension program at The University of California at Irvine. After spending two and a half years in the Golden State, Hatem said he finds it difficult to adjust.

“It’s hard to find open-mindedness here,” he said. “The way that they look at me… I didn’t find that in California.”

At UC Irvine, Hatem perfected his English and learned “American systems,” like courts and classrooms. His favorite experience, he said, was in a fourth-grade classroom, where he and his classmates taught students “about their culture.”

Unlike in his own country, he said, “boys and girls sat together.”

“I like their innocence,” he said. “When you compare cultures, it’s okay here. It’s okay if [boys and girls] study together here… but back home, we have to respect the culture.”

Schools in Saudi Arabia are not segregated by status, but by gender, Hatem said.

The twins attended 12 years of public school in Saudi Arabia, which Hatem said are places where “the poor can study with the rich” and are often more reputable than the private schools. After kindergarten, though, public schools split into all-male or all-female facilities.

“It’s beneficial to separate male from female because you can concentrate more,” he said.

Hashem began to speak of his daughter, who will be in one of these classrooms in three years’ time. Though the Saudi Arabian government would have funded his family’s travel to the States, Hashem decided to come alone.

“It’s hard to concentrate on both his family and his degree,” Hatem said, translating.

However, after hearing his brother’s stories and reflecting upon his own education, Hashem said he would choose public school for his daughter if life were different and she was here with him today.

“I think the private [schools] here are wealthy people only,” he said. “It doesn’t matter your color or your nationality – we are human beings, and she can learn [that] while she’s young.”

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