Many colleges and universities in the United States compete fiercely for foreign students. They tour the world on recruiting drives. Many have offices abroad. But there’s one group of potential students that until recently went largely untapped: women from the Arab and Muslim World. More of them are now attending women’s colleges here, as The World’s Katy Clark discovered.
Web extra: Katy Clark also got an earful from Mount Holyoke freshmen Samah Majadla and Sarah Tulimat about the thing they hate most about life at an American college.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. Many colleges and universities here in the United States compete fiercely for foreign students. Those schools tour the world on recruiting drives—many even have offices abroad. But here’s one group of potential students, that until recently, went largely untapped—women from the Arab and Muslim world. More of them are now attending women’s colleges here, as The World’s Katy Clark discovered.
KATY CLARK: Wellesley College–just outside Boston—proudly claims Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright among its graduates. These days, the college also touts its growing International student population. Junior, Sarah Shaer, is from Jordan, but now lives in Dubai. She’s part of this “new wave” of Wellesley women.
SARAH SHAER: Those are clean clothes. I’d just like to point that out. My mother [OVERLAPPING] …
CLARK: Which ones are …
SHAER: … Yes, on the floor and in the basket. My mom would kill me if she knew. She’d be, like, they’d think that “I didn’t teach you right.” Ha, ha, ha. Buy yeah—if it helps—I do laundry.
CLARK: Another thing that might alarm Shaer’s mother is something called the “all gender bathroom” down the hall. Wellesley is technically a women’s college, but Shaer says that doesn’t make the school “a convent.”
SHAER: You could do whatever you want, so long as you don’t do anything illegal.
CLARK: Shaer’s fairly typical of the students coming from the Arab and Muslim world to study at women’s colleges here. They come from families that place a value on girls’ education; and interestingly, a lot of them sound American. Samah Majadla is a freshman at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She’s Arab/Israeli. Majadla says both she and her parents always expected that she would move to the United States one day. Still, Majadla says her father hesitated when she started applying to women’s colleges in the U. S.
SAMAH MAJADLA: At the beginning, he didn’t want me to apply to Mount Holyoke, because he thought that if it’s an all-girls school, it’s very conservative. But he talked to my high school counselor, and she told him that it’s really not the case. So it’s kind of funny that he wanted me to be more liberal, I suppose, than what most people would expect.
CLARK: It definitely takes a different kind of father to encourage his daughter to go to college half way around the world, which likely explains why most of the students I meet are deeply proud of their fathers.
FATIMA BURNEY: I didn’t realize it first, but I think my father is quite feminist. I think my mom is too, but my father is much more outspokenly a feminist.
CLARK: Fatima Burney is a Wellesley Senior. Burney is Pakistani, but her family moved to Kuwait when she was four. Burney’s two older sisters also went to women’s colleges in the States, and her younger sister just started at Mount Holyoke. Burney eventually plans to return to Pakistan. She knows it could be a tough readjustment. Burney realizes the empowerment she feels at Wellesley won’t be the norm back home.
BURNEY: I once had a classmate say, “Your father must be a really strong man;” and I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Well, because he had four daughters.” And I was like, “Well, what does that mean?” He said, “Well, you know, if someone has four sons and no sons daughters he’ll be happy; but if a person has four daughters and no sons, then you know …” And he kind of left it at that, and I was horrified!
CLARK: Women in many of the countries these students come from have fewer freedoms than men. They’re often expected to cover their heads in public—that’s something most of them don’t do here in the U. S. Some of the women interviewed for the story were reluctant to have their pictures taken. They worry that the way they now dress might offend more conservative relatives back home. Jennifer Desjarlai is Wellesley’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aide. She says it’s definitely a challenge for students who are trying to “keep a foot in both worlds.”
JENNIFER DESJARLAI: It’s a conversation we have often with our students, “How do you balance who you are with who you’re becoming and where you come from, and how do all those pieces fit together?” It’s an incredible journey, I think, for many of our students.
CLARK: It’s been quite a journey for some of the colleges too. Desjarlai says it was only a short time ago that women’s colleges here realized that the Middle East was fertile recruiting ground.
DESJARLAI: A few years ago, my colleagues and I from the four of the other sister colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Smith) had been at an International conference with a number of colleagues having dinner; and over dinner, in conversation with a group of counselors from the region, they shared with us that there weren’t all that many U. S. colleges and universities visiting their part of the world, and they were working with some really wonderful students, and it was area of tremendous growth, and expressed interest in having us come visit—particularly, I thin too, because of the focus on the liberal arts and sciences, which is particularly a kind of uniquely American in the educational system.
CLARK: There are things, though, that happen on college campuses in the U. S., that can make someone from a predominantly Muslim country uncomfortable—public displays of affection and drinking alcohol are things these women now see a lot. Sarah Tulimat insists it’s no big deal. Tulimat, who’s from Syria, is a Freshman at Mount Holyoke. She says nothing shocked her—not even her openly-gay classmates.
SARAH TULIMAT: I’ve probably seen that before, like on TV; but I’m a person who completely agree that anyone who wants to have any kind of sexual relationship is entitled to do that.
CLARK: Most of the women express similar views. One student, though, says she’s having some trouble adjusting. Lubna Saqran is from Yemen. She hopes to study medicine after graduating from Mount Holyoke. Saqran says she hasn’t talked to many American men since arriving in the U. S. this past summer. She’s uncomfortable at parties because of the kissing and drinking, and she says she especially dislikes the way male visitors wander around the dorms.
LUBNA SAQRAN: In the dorm I don’t put the scarf on. So I was going to the bathroom, and there was this guy; he had long, fair hair, and I thought he was a girl; and he was just like standing in the [SOUNDS LIKE] dorm with a couple of girls; and I was just [SOUNDS LIKE] holding besides them; and I was looking at them; and then I just noticed that he had a beard; and I was just, “Oh my God!” I just went into the bathroom; I mean like they’re supposed to keep their boyfriends inside their rooms or just outside dorm, not [SOUNDS LIKE] on the hallway.
CLARK: Moments like that notwithstanding, Saqran said she loves college. She’s especially excited about a recent African-Caribbean dance night at Mount Holyoke.
FEMALE STUDENT PERFORMER: [INAUDIBLE].
CLARK: Of course, college isn’t the first time the first time these women are being exposed to other cultures. Many of the places they’re from are extremely Cosmopolitan. Wellesley student, Sarah Shaer, shrugs-off suggestions that her experiences at a women’s college in the United States will help change society in Dubai when she returns there.
SARAH SHAER: I think that it’s happening regardless. I go home every summer, and things are changing. Some people argue rapidly; some people argue slowly, but things are changing nevertheless.
CLARK: Now, though, it’s time to plan for the weekend. Some of the students will be going to holiday parties. One or two will be avoiding them. And Sarah Tulimat has plans to go to a hockey game with a couple of American friends. I suggest, “That has to be something really new and different for someone from Syria?”
TULIMAT: No. This is my first hockey game. This is Dorothy’s first hockey game. This is Kelsey’s first hockey game. It’s not only my first hockey game. But no, I’ve seen hockey on the TV. I like it, so this is why I’m going to see it.
CLARK: Tulimat left the Middle East to attend a women’s college in the United States for much the same reason. She likes it—period. For The World, this is Katy Clark.
WERMAN: And we have photos of the students in Katy’s story on our website, theworld.org. You can also hear Mount Holyoke Freshman, Samah Majadla and Sarah Tulimat ranting about the thing they hate most about life at an American College.
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