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Photo: Graduates from Saudi Arabia
They are about 7,000 miles from home. The language is different. So are the foods and many of the customs. The weather is downright cold compared to where they’re from.
Despite having had to adjust in many ways, four students from Saudi Arabia say they will sorely miss University of Wisconsin-Stout and Menomonie. They graduated Saturday, Dec. 19, along with more than 700 other students in two ceremonies at Johnson Fieldhouse.
The four graduates are excited, certainly, to move on with their lives and begin their careers, but after living in west-central Wisconsin for several years while they learned English and completed their bachelor’s degrees, they have come to appreciate the small-town aspect of American life.
“I love Menomonie so much. It’s been good for my life. If I have children, I want to bring them here someday,” said Sultan Aldhubayb, who earned a degree in information technology management.
Nearly 25 students from Saudi Arabia graduated Saturday. About 150 Saudi Arabians are attending UW-Stout, making up nearly a third of the university’s approximately 350 international students. Most of the Saudis take English as a Second Language courses on campus before beginning their studies.
“Before I came to the United States, I thought it was really dangerous and that there were a lot of guns. But I feel really safe here in Wisconsin. The people are friendly,” said Shatha Al Shehri, who graduated in apparel design and development.
Alhassan Nasraddin, who majored in hotel, restaurant and tourism management, said that while Menomonie and UW-Stout are not perfect — he said Saudis have faced some discrimination by American students — he feels fortunate to have studied here.
“I lived here not always liking it and the small town, but every time I go away I miss it and the lifestyle. I love the city, and I feel like I’m going to cry when I think about leaving. I feel attached to the city. I’ve built my personality here,” Nasraddin said.
Nasraddin, Aldhubayb, Al Shehri and Ali “Salil” Al-Ghadeer have traveled extensively in the U.S. during their three or four years here, and while they enjoyed visiting Orlando, Chicago, Houston, New York, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and other metro areas, they have felt safest and most at home in Menomonie, they said.
“I love it. I don’t need a car here. It’s safe and less crowded. I think of it as my other home,” said Al-Ghadeer, who earned his diploma in business administration.
They are comfortable in Menomonie despite being foreign and despite being Muslim. They have found that Americans in general, and specifically students and residents of Menomonie, haven’t had their views of Islam negatively affected by ISIS or by recent controversial comments made by presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has called for a ban of all Muslims entering the U.S.
“In Wisconsin there has been a lot of support of Muslims,” Al-Ghadeer said of the reaction to Trump’s idea. However, he admitted to some concern that a presidential candidate would have such a view because he hopes to stay and work in the U.S. “What if I end up working in a place that is anti-Muslim? Muslims are not all bad.”
“It was shocking for us,” Nasraddin said of Trump’s idea. “It’s sadly funny. I found it ridiculous. As Muslims we are also victims. We also are being killed and harmed, and our reputation is being damaged. It’s really, really frustrating.”
The four students are examples of typical, peaceful, progressive Muslims from the Middle East. By being allowed to study in the U.S., they have helped close cultural gaps for themselves and for Americans. Their view now of Americans is much more positive than when they arrived, they said.
Al-Ghadeer is one of nine children in his family and grew up in Al-Ahsa, the world’s largest oasis, in eastern Saudi Arabia. He earned a two-year degree at a technical college before earning a scholarship from that college to come to the U.S. and finish his bachelor’s.
He has made many American friends in Menomonie, shares an apartment with an American and has attended church regularly with Christians. He believes that Christians and Muslims are worshipping the same god. One of his Christian friends calls him brother and her children call him uncle, he said.
“We can live together with different beliefs,” said Al-Ghadeer, who also taught an Arabic language class this fall at UW-Stout.
Nasraddin, who has two sisters, grew up in Jeddah, a cosmopolitan city on the Red Sea and the second largest city in Saudi Arabia. His parents came to the U.S. when he was a teenager, and he graduated from Roseville (Minn.) High School. His sister Reem graduated from UW-Stout in 2014 also in hospitality, and his mother took several classes here. His other sister is in college in Hawaii.
“I’ve gotten used to the American lifestyle,” he said, adding that he hopes to find a full-time job and stay in the U.S. for at least a year, if not longer.
Nasraddin is proud of what he’s accomplished — moving to a foreign country, learning English and graduating from college. “I had a lot of tough days, especially the first days. I’ve learned a lot about America, the world and myself. If I had to go back, I’d do this over and over.”
His parents and Reem, who is working in Jeddah, returned from Saudi Arabia to see him graduate.
Aldhubayb, the third oldest of 11 children, is from a medium-size city in Saudi Arabia, Zulfi, but his parents also have a home in Riyadh, the capital.
“When I came here in the fall of 2012, I just knew ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘one, two, three’ in English,” he said, laughing. “The first fall here I made a lot of friends, and I wasn’t even speaking English. I’m very social.”
He plans to return to Saudi Arabia to teach in the college that sponsored him at UW-Stout. “When I saw snow for the first time, I told my dad I want to come back! But the people here are friendly. You go down any street and people say hello.”
Al Shehri, who has three siblings, grew up in Jeddah and dreamed as a little girl of coming to the U.S. “I like America. I can’t believe I’m here,” she said, adding that her father, a retired business owner, came with her to Menomonie for extended periods of time to help her adjust.
Although she loves the U.S., she also misses Saudi Arabia and wants to return to Jeddah. She talks with her family daily.
One of the biggest decisions she faced once in the U.S. was whether or not to discard her traditional hijab, the headscarf some Muslim women wear. She didn’t wear it in public after about two years in Menomonie.
“I’m comfortable without it, but I’m still Muslim. I’m proud I’m Muslim,” she said, adding that she tends to be quiet so the decision to change her appearance made life easier socially for her on campus.
In Jeddah, clothing standards for Muslim women are more relaxed than in Riyadh. It’s a good place to open a fashion store, she said. As an apparel design major, she hopes to work first in the U.S. and then design her own clothing and open a shop in Jeddah.
“I’m going to be famous,” she said with a smile.
Top: Front row from left, Alhassan Nasraddin, Shatha Al Shehri and Sultan Aldhubayb. Back, Ali “Sulil” Al-Ghadeer.
Second through fifth photos: Al-Ghadeer, Aldhubayb, Al Shehri and Nasraddin receive their diplomas Dec. 19.
Sixth photo: Sultan Aldhubayb presents the Saudi Arabian flag during the fall International Cultural Show at UW-Stout.
Bottom: Ali “Salil” Al-Ghadeer, second from right, has fun with students he taught in an Arabic language class at UW-Stout. From left are Reagan Tracy, Rebecca Wereley and Alex Anton, right.