The first sign they weren't home anymore, but in a strange new world:
“Everywhere we go, we see men and women holding hands and walking around together,” said Fatimah Lajami, a UNC Charlotte freshman from Al Jarodiah, Saudi Arabia.
“At my home, we have no interaction (with) males. I can't even shake hands with a male, except for my father or a cousin.”
The second sign: “The food. Hamburgers are the most popular meal here,” said Anwaar Zawad, another UNCC freshman who is Lajami's good friend in Saudi Arabia.
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The two are among 20 new Saudi students – 11 women, nine men – pursuing four-year degrees at UNCC, their education paid for by Saudi Aramco. For 40 years, the global oil company has sent thousands of its country's best and brightest to study in the United States.
Now more than 900 Saudi students – including 79 women – are enrolled at 14 American and Canadian universities. Hundreds more are studying at institutions in England, China and Japan.
It's the 15th year Aramco has sent them to UNCC but the first time the company has sent Saudi women here.
In recent years, UNCC has aggressively recruited undergraduate and graduate students from other countries – with a goal of preparing all students for global relationships and spreading UNCC's name beyond U.S. borders.
“We encourage our students to take advantage of the fact that other parts of the world have come here,” said Marian Beane, director of UNCC's International Student/Scholar Office.
“The presence of the Saudi students and students from other countries provides rich opportunities for expanding and deepening cultural understanding.”
Aramco and Saudi Arabia benefit, too.
Seventy years ago, oil was discovered in the Saudi Arabian desert by an American company that became Aramco. Since then, the country has developed dramatically, including a $10 billion science and technology university – ordered by King Abdullah – currently under construction. It will offer coed classes, Western professors and English courses in hopes of attracting students from the West.
But the country's universities have not kept pace with the developments, especially for women.
That is one reason Aramco pays for students to be educated elsewhere.
“The company wants students to get a diverse education and to be self-reliant,” said Reem Al-Ghanim, an Aramco career development counselor who oversees the program's female students in the United States and Canada.
“By sending them to other countries to learn, they are learning to be independent.”
Preparing for work, life
Even before Lajami and Zawad arrived in Charlotte, they spent 10 months preparing for it, enrolling in a simulated college experience fresh out of high school.
Theirs is a dream deal: With degrees in hand, they'll have jobs waiting at Aramco. Ninety percent of the company's new hires come from the program, Al-Ghahim said.
The Saudi students have already met the people they'll work with and seen their offices. They know their starting salaries and job titles, she said.
Many of the students, including Lajami and Zawad, are following their fathers, who studied in America through Aramco and then worked for the company.
Here, the students live in an apartment complex just off campus. They are fiercely proud of their country and families. They don't question policy or cultures and don't anticipate American values changing that.
“For the longest time, men worked and women stay at home,” Lajami said. “That is changing. Women are working in banks and companies. We are a part of that change.”
When they're out, the women students cover their heads in a scarf called a hijab, Arabic for “cover.” They say they welcome the stares and questions.
“We wear our scarves, and we can wear jeans and a blouse, but it must cover our bodies,” Zawad said. “At school, people see us with our scarves, and they ask us where we are from, or why do we wear the scarves. They ask us about our cultures and traditions, and we tell them everything.
“That is good. It allows us to understand each other better.”