Virginia Tech welcomes many international students to its U.S. campuses.  But something new happened for the 2011-12 school year. A first-of-its-kind contingent of 15 gifted students from Saudi Arabia winged their way from the desert kingdom to leafy Blacksburg for a year of science-oriented studies.

"It's been an adjustment for them being here," said Amanda Johnson, assistant director of special programs for the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute. "These 18-year-old students stepped off the plane and dove right into their program, not intimidated by the high expectations for their performance."

The students, sent by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, are here to spend the year preparing for the TOEFL English-language exam as well as the SAT, which like American students they must pass to enter U.S. universities.  They’re also immersed in science and math courses. In fall 2012, the students will spread out throughout the U.S. to pursue their bachelor’s degrees at other institutions. Many of them are applying to Virginia Tech's engineering programs.

"They’re doing great so far," Johnson says. "I'm impressed with their inquisitive natures, how involved they are in their studies, and their drive to understand every aspect of what's going on. That’s the mark of a college student who's really taking a hand in their academic future."

Some of the students are worldly and well traveled, but most are experiencing their first time away from family. Saudi culture often requires that women and girls be accompanied when traveling. So some of the female students came with their mothers, fathers, brothers, or grandparents, who showed support for the young women’s aspirations by settling in Blacksburg for the school year.

The students are taking College of Science classes including physics, chemistry, calculus, and lab work to prepare them for the rigors of an undergraduate degree program. Fortunately, the students are already proficient in English, which speeded their adjustment to culture and daily life.

Mohammad Alwazrah, for one, felt at home from the beginning. "I live in a small town back in Saudi Arabia just like Blacksburg," he said. Abdulrahman Linjawi experienced more culture shock. "I'm from an urban area so the rural setting is different. I'm loving the atmosphere here – it's quiet and peaceful. Everyone here is really nice."

During fall semester, the students had an opportunity to be a part of the community beyond academia. They competed in an effort to help fight hunger and volunteered for an organization to collect food donations for people in the New River Valley. The contest included a sculpture. "We created a traditional Saudi castle that converted into a Hokie football field. We got third place," Reem Alattas said. "It was great to be able to go out into the community and take part in this."

The daughter of a physicist and an aviation engineer, Alattas is planning to major in cognitive science or neuroscience. She added, "I want to learn a lot from this experience. I can only imagine how much more I’ll learn in the months to come."

Hear more from Alattas and Islam in this YouTube video.

Another partner in the project, the Institute of International Education, is helping the students with the sometimes complex process of completing college applications and making sure the students furnish needed documentation. After the students earn their four-year degrees, they are expected to enroll in graduate programs back home at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

Yen Dinh from Alexandria, Va., a senior majoring in marketing, leadership and social change in the Pamplin College of Business, contributed to this report.

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