Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gifted Students from Saudi Arabia Study Science in Blacksburg

By Andrea Brunais

  Lois Ingles at the Language and Culture Institute lectures Saudi students
BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 7, 2012 – 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 for 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."

Tashkandi and Linjawi receiving donations
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.

Virginia Tech’s Outreach and International Affairs supports the university’s engagement mission by creating community partnerships and economic development projects, offering professional development programs and technical assistance, and building collaborations to enrich discovery and learning – all with the overarching goal of improving the quality of life for people within the commonwealth and throughout the world. Outreach and International Affairs leads Virginia Tech’s presence on five continents; its regional research and development centers across the commonwealth focus on graduate education and professional development. Blacksburg-based centers are dedicated to student engagement, language, policy, and governance.

My Valdivia TravelogueVI

By Georgia Wyche
Many things have occurred during the month of January at Universidad Austral de Chile. In the beginning of the month, we had several visitors from Virginia Tech.  I’m also continuing to teach English conversation classes, working with applied linguistics students, and led a scientific writing workshop to UACh researchers.

In the beginning of January, John Dooley (Vice President for Outreach and International Affairs), Karen DePauw (Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education) and six Virginia Tech graduate students visited UACh. The purpose of their visit was to learn about campus life and higher education in Chile.  I was happy to meet the group and joined them on several tours and excursions to university laboratories and tourist attractions in and around Valdivia.  Their visit was a worthwhile and enriching experience not only for the group, but also for me. I look forward reconnecting with everyone once I’m back in Blacksburg.

After John Dooley’s visit,  Dr. Bill Huckle (Associate Professor of 
Cell Biology/Pharmacology at Virginia Tech) visited Universidad Austral de Chile.  Dr. Juan Claudio Gutierrez (UACh Veterinary School) kindly hosted Huckle and organized his university visit, specifically to the UACh Veterinary School.  During his visit, Huckle gave several interesting talks to students and faculty members. 
I’m also continuing to teach English conversation classes to UACh journalists. These classes are a lot of fun and are taught in a relaxed environment.  Moreover, I continue to stay busy working with my applied linguistics students. The last few classes with my students have been online. For these classes, I covered assessing listening, speaking, reading and writing in the ESL classroom. My students recently turned in a second paper for the class, so I have plenty of reading and grading to do during the month of February.
Workshop presentation
During the last two weeks of January, I led and taught an intensive scientific writing workshop to members of the Department of Graduate Research. The students learned to write articles and abstracts and gave presentations on their work. Dr. Juan Claudio Gutierrez of UACh provided assistance during the workshop by talking to the students about his experiences in scientific writing in English when he was a graduate student at Virginia Tech.  All in all, this workshop was a great accomplishment and I look forward to it transitioning into a class in the second semester.
Even though the university is closed for summer vacation until the end of February, I plan on keeping busy. I have many papers to correct and lessons to create for the second semester. I also plan on doing some informal English conversation classes at cafes in town for interested students.  I return to work on February 21st to prepare for the arrival of the university deans from Virginia Tech.