Saudi students club recognized for outreach and involvement
Members of the Saudi Students Club at Virginia Tech say the group has two goals. The first is to serve as a resource for Saudi students studying in Blacksburg. The second is to share their country’s values, culture, and traditions with non-Saudis.
“SSCVT isn’t just the acronym of our club name. It is also stands for ‘simply share cultural values and trust,’” said Turki Alzahrani of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a doctoral student in the instructional design and technology program of Virginia Tech’s school of education in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Alzahrani is past president and current advisor to the club. “We want to show our true society, not just the media’s image of us.”
Alzahrani, who was an English teacher in his home country, initially came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar and did graduate work in instructional design and technology at Emporia State University. After getting his master degree, he joined King Abdulaziz University as a lecturer in educational technology, which gave him a full scholarship to pursue his doctorate at Virginia Tech.
Recalling his own first weeks in the U.S., Alzahrani said, “Many Saudis are afraid of communicating with Americans when they first arrive. It is intimidating to be in a new culture. That is why we reach out and link them to their peers and to community resources.”
The Saudi Students Club at Virginia Tech recently won first place among 260 Saudi student clubs throughout the United States. The recognition, which comes with a cash award, is given annually by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States, the Virginia-based agency that administers the generous scholarship program King Abdullah established for students wishing to study in the United States.
Among the 20 criteria by which clubs are judged are providing help to Saudi students in the form of language assistance; guiding newcomers to housing, transportation, shopping, and schools; networking with other student organizations; volunteering in the community; and getting involved on campus.
The club's busy calendar includes cultural events that represent Saudi Arabian traditions, such as Saudi National Day each fall. It also partners with other clubs for events such as the Colors of Islam with the Muslim Student Association. There are soccer games with other international groups representing countries where the sport is popular. The club sponsors Graduate Management Admission Test and Graduate Record Examinations workshops. It also hosts an annual farewell event for graduating students.
The Saudi club participated in the Council of International Student Organizations’ International Street Fair, took part in international week at Gilbert Linkous Elementary School in Blacksburg, had a table at Gobblerfest, and represented their country in a new event at Virginia Tech, the Hokie World Games Parade of Nations.
The celebration of Ramadan in late summer is also important to the club, and its members collaborate with the Islamic Center of the New River Valley to make the traditional breaking of fasts an inclusive event. “For many individuals and families, this is the first time away from home and it is hard to be alone during Ramadan,” said Alzahrani. “When we get together, we share our humanity.”
Building trust between faculty and Saudi students is tricky, because in Saudi culture students do not typically approach persons in authority. Alzahrani tries to arrange gatherings where Saudi students and faculty can interact in informal settings. “I wish all faculty took the time to get to know all the international student organizations, to get a new cultural point of view and look at diversity with fresh eyes,” said Alzahrani. “When we connect on a human level, a personal level, it gives us extra motivation to work toward even better communication.”
The Saudi Students Club at Virginia Tech was started in 2006. Total membership is about 150. One third of those are academic students at Virginia Tech; the rest are affiliated with the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute, which helps international students meet their personal, academic, and professional goals through its intensive English course series. Part of the university's Outreach and International Affairs, the institute hosts more than 500 students each year from more than 30 countries spanning the globe.
Alzahrani said he still has his identity as a Saudi, but now identifies as a Virginia Tech student as well, and reaps the benefit of Virginia Tech’s reputation throughout the world. “It is a powerful opportunity,” he said. “It makes you ask yourself, what did you do on your journey? Did you touch souls or did you blow through like the wind and leave no trace?”
The Saudi Students Club at Virginia Tech took part in the Parade of Nations opening ceremonies on English Field as part of the Hokie World Games.