ST. LOUIS – Several sessions on Wednesday at the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference focused on the rapidly growing  numbers of Saudi Arabian students in the United States and the unique challenges associated with these students, who often arrive on campus with low levels of English and math preparation and with cultural values that can complicate their chances for success in an American classroom.
Fueling the growth in the numbers of these students has been the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program, administered by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM); the program, which started in 2005, funds 12 to 18 months of language training in addition to undergraduate or graduate degree study, predominantly in science- or engineering-related fields. Whereas the top destination country for Saudi students before the scholarship program began in 2004-5 was Egypt, one in two globally mobile Saudi students now study in the U.S., said Yoko Kono, a research associate for World Education Services. Other English-speaking destinations -- the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia -- have also risen in popularity.
“One of the things that happened when we got this huge increase of SACM-sponsored students on a campus with very little diversity compared to other universities was a huge culture shock,” said Stefanie Stauber, the sponsored-student support coordinator at Boise State University, in Idaho, where the number of Saudi students has risen sharply and exceeded 300 in spring 2013.
Stauber outlined a number of ways in which cultural factors play out in the classroom, including the fact that Saudi students come from a collectivist culture, where family is paramount. “What we’re seeing is oftentimes family takes precedence over academics and students will oftentimes miss class to speak to their parents due to the time difference or leave the country for a brother’s marriage and miss weeks of coursework,” Stauber said.
She also said that Saudi students tend to form extremely tight social networks with one another to the point that she worries it will limit their own personal development “because students are not experiencing things on their own and instead are following the trends of the group.” Stauber also noted, “We’re seeing there’s a fine line between helping a friend and academic dishonesty. We’re seeing a lot of academic dishonesty cases.”
Furthermore, a cultural predisposition to negotiation -- “For some of you who have interacted with these students oftentimes negotiation is accompanied by charm and a little bit of pressure” – has been interpreted by some faculty as threatening and has become a student conduct issue in some cases.
In addition, there are more straightforward issues of academic preparation. The mean Test of English as a Foreign Language score for Saudi students in 2012 was 60, compared to 81 for all groups. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study , Saudi fourth- and eighth-grade students score comparatively poorly on math assessments. The U.S. has a history of attracting elite students from Saudi Arabia but the massive scholarship program has opened access to foreign higher education for students who are not nearly as well-prepared.
“At Boise State, we have gotten very creative and implemented numerous academic interventions  inside and outside of the classroom," Stauber said.
The university has increased the minimum International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score required for undergraduate admission from 5.0 to a 5.5. It has developed eight-week accelerated math classes, using the ALEKS software, for students who test into low levels of math and still want to progress toward a degree in a STEM field within the four- to five-year time frame of their scholarship funding. It has also created "cross-cultural" sections of certain core classes taught by faculty with experience or particular interest in teaching international students.
Christy Babcock, associate director of international student services at Boise State, said that "faculty and staff preparedness" has been a challenge given the rapid growth of Saudi students at an institution where professors are accustomed to teaching "white Idahoans." The university offers faculty training workshops and just launched a once-a-semester "Cultural Lunch and Learn" event for sponsored Saudi and Kuwaiti students and Boise State faculty to provide them with a chance to casually interact. The university has a newly implemented $300 per-semester sponsored student fee, charged to SACM, which it used to expand its staff and fund such initiatives.
Other speakers at NAFSA described making changes to intensive English programs, where most Saudi students begin their studies. For example, Emiko Christopherson, an international program assistant at Oregon State University, said the institution recently changed its policies to address problems regarding poor attendance. Finding that ESL students who took standardized tests in order to jump levels were struggling upon entering their degree programs, the university now requires all ESL students to pass every ESL class in a sequence even if they obtain a new test score partway through. Attendance is one of the criteria for progression, Christopherson said.
"We have a very strict attendance policy and tardiness policy. We tell all our students: you get a second chance and nobody gets a third," said Mark D. Rentz, director of the American English and Culture Program at Arizona State University. Rentz emphasized the need to invest in marketing in order to diversify ESL programs by nationality, while acknowledging it is difficult to achieve that kind of diversity at the lowest-level English courses that many Saudi students initially place into.
He also emphasized expanding opportunities for conversation practice -- ASU's program hires graduate students in linguistics and TESOL to facilitate conversation groups -- as well as constantly re-evaluating issues regarding academic rigor. “We do research papers, Power Point presentations, group work, poster sessions, we have an [eight-day] academic skills boot camp... and a lot of ESP courses, English for Specific Purposes," such as courses in English for engineering or architecture.
“Let's take our resources given to us by our students to plow it back into our program to create really meaningful, dynamic programs for them," he said.