KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - Western Michigan University is getting ready for the arrival of 300 students from Saudi Arabia, one of the country's largest delegations on U.S. campuses.
Saudi students also are the largest single national group among international students on the Kalamazoo campus.
The students acknowledge the challenges that they face coming from a Middle Eastern country. And having fellow Saudis around can slow the acculturation process, they say.
"What happens is we just speak our own language with each other and we cannot practice English," said Abdullah Albalawi, a Saudi Arabian student who will graduate from the school's Center for English Language and Culture for International Students program before he starts his master's degree in statistics.
About 51,000 students from Saudi Arabia are studying in the U.S. this year, according to the Saudi Embassy. Saudi Arabia's international scholarship program was launched when Saudi King Abdullah took the throne in 2005. This year, it has about 130,000 young people studying around the world, according to the Wall Street Journal.
"Typically, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission likes to send 125 students per institution, but we're way over that," said Juan Tavares, Western Michigan's director if international admissions and services. "The reason they allow us to have more is because the students really like it here and the cultural program in D.C. is very aware of how tough our (second-language English) program is."
Albalawi, 26, told Mlive.com (http://bit.ly/QeJjIp ) that he has found Kalamazoo to be a welcoming community, and the center's courses are helpful and "definitely prepared" him for classes. But finding Americans to converse with is difficult for him, his wife and other Saudi and international students.
"I have no American friends and I would like to," said Faisal Alhusainy, 19, a Saudi student who has been in the second-language English program for a year. "It's harder to make friends here. In our culture, it's hard to break the ice with other people, too. It's just cultural differences."
Diana Vreeland, the director of the English Language and Culture for International Students program, said she would love to see more American and international students mingle, but her program aims for academic results, not social conveniences.
"The more they interact, the more they are using English and that helps their in-class performance but the Saudi Arabian students have a strong social network, many are related in some way," Vreeland said. "They have big family groups here. That's very normal. ... It doesn't mean they don't have social network, but a lot of Americans are shy and vice versa."
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