Before his arrival in the United States, Mashhour Z. Alqahtani experienced higher education in a very different fashion. Having already earned a degree from Riyadh’s College of Telecom and Information, Mashhour sought a to earn a second degree. This time, however, he was to achieve it abroad in America under the fellowship of the King Abdullah Scholarship program. Leaving behind a family of four brothers and five sisters in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, Mashhour arrived in America in January 2008.
Mashhour’s vision of America had been provided by Hollywood, generating the Manhattan-esqe image that the country in its entirety was comprised of skyscrapers, busy traffic, and bustling streets. However, he was surprised to find the big screen’s stereotypes of America didn’t quite correspond to Cookeville, Tennessee, the small town home to Tennessee Technological University where Mashhour was to study Electrical Engineering.
His first experiences were what one might expect, stereotypes and misunderstanding of Saudis and their heritage. He overcame the ignorance attributed to lack of knowledge and understanding and sought, instead, to build bridges. Mashhour saw the opportunity to change the preconceived notions adopted by some Americans after the 9/11 tragedies. His passion to represent the true, peaceful nature of Saudis led him to take charge in the Saudi Students Club as the club’s president where he worked diligently to, not only proudly represent his country, but prove to the students and the people in his new community that they can live together as partners in peace. While it may have been difficult, initially, to disprove erroneous impressions of Saudi Arabian people, Mashhour notes in this exclusive interview with SUSRIS that his passionate pursuit of not only a second degree, but of peace between cultures, ultimately yielded results.
This week SUSRIS is sharing insights and perspectives about the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which supports the overseas studies of over 100,000 Saudi young men and women around the world. Other articles and interviews in this series are listed below.
A New Vision of America: A Conversation with Mashhour Alqahtani
[Mashhour Alqahtani] I’m originally from the southern part of Saudi Arabia, but I grew up on the East Coast, Dammam. I lived with my family, which consists of my parents, four brothers, and five sisters, but I didn’t live with all of them because they are much older. I finished high school in Dammam then moved out to Riyadh. I studied three years in the College of Telecom and Info in the capital city and received a high diploma.
[SUSRIS] Why were you interested in studying in the United States?
[Alqahtani] I was interested in studying abroad because the U.S. is the best place to study and have a great experience. I can say that the U.S. was the best choice to go study abroad.
[SUSRIS] What were your expectations before you arrived in the U.S. in terms of the city you would be living in, the school, the community, the students, and any other things about the U.S. you had in mind?
[Alqahtani] I expected to have some problems because after 9/11, the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi worsened to where Americans thought all Saudis represented Osama Bin Laden. One of my goals was to show Americans that we as Saudis are not hateful people or ignorant, as some like to think. With diversity, we can live together as friends and work together as partners in peace.
[Alqahtani] I lived in Cookeville, Tennessee where I had a very good experience and made a lot of friends in the local community, working as a volunteer as much as possible. Before, all of my knowledge about the U.S. was from movies. I thought all of U.S. was like Manhattan, New York. I thought, “I’m going to live in a building like the Empire State building.” I thought people would be much more friendly than what I experienced, only because people still think that we Saudis are terrorists and all Muslims and Arabs supported bin Laden.
[SUSRIS] How difficult was it to adjust to American culture and the way of doing things?
[Alqahtani] The U.S. is multicultural country, so it was not too difficult to adapt to. I lived just like Americans, ate with them, and shopped from the same stores.
[SUSRIS] What were among the positive experiences you had in the U.S., at school, and in the community?
[Alqahtani] The more positive experiences were the lifestyle, the system, and the academic life that I experienced. Cookeville is a small town and does not have too many distractions of time or money. It is a great place to study and a quiet area.
[SUSRIS] What were the negative experiences you had in the U.S., at school, and in the community?
[Alqahtani] It was very hard to get accepted into the Tennessean community and to be treated the way they treat each other.
[Alqahtani] Be prepared in the language and you should be OK.
[SUSRIS] How do you think your education in the United States will prepare you for the future compared to studying at a Saudi Arabian university?
[Alqahtani] In my opinion, the U.S. is the best place to study and adds great experience and education to anyone wanting to study there.
[SUSRIS] Who was the greatest influence on your while studying in the United States and why?
[Alqahtani] My wife, Nayramin Alqahtani
[SUSRIS] In your travels in the United States during your university studies what was your favorite place, and why?
[Alqahtani] Orlando, Florida because it was the best place to go and spend vacation
[SUSRIS] In what ways does the Saudi scholarship program help build bridges between Saudis and Americans? Were you involved in outreach events and programs with your school or community? If so, please describe them.
[Alqahtani] When I arrived to Cookeville in January 2008, the local community was really mad at Saudis and it was hard accept us. They didn’t even like to have conversations with us. After more Saudis came to Cookeville, we had more friends on campus and people started to know us more. Gradually, they accepted us. As president of the Saudi Club, I worked really hard with my staff to represent my country to the students and the Tennessean people to show them that we can live together as partners in peace. After a while, every American student here knew another Saudi student or at least had heard about them. Today, I think, the majority of people who live in Cookeville, especially students, have positive feelings about Saudis.
About the King Abdullah Scholarship Program
The King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) started in 2005 with an agreement between King Abdullah and President George Bush to increase the number of Saudi students in the U.S. Despite its recent launch the KASP is the largest scholarship program in the history of Saudi Arabia, with more than 120,000 students in over 30 countries worldwide.
Source: Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM)
- Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the US (SACM)
- The Saudi Cultural Mission’s New Headquarters – SUSRIS – Jul 25, 2012
- King Abdullah Scholarship Program: The Saudi Arabian Educational Youth Stride – SUSRIS – Jul 30, 2012
- Student Ambassador Building Bridges: A Conversation with Zeyad Al-Shammari – SUSRIS – Jul 31, 2012
- A New Vision of America: A Conversation with Mashhour Alqahtani – SUSRIS – Aug 1, 2012
- King Abdullah Scholarship Students Recognized – Samar Fatany – SUSRIS – Aug 2, 2012
- Saudi Students at Tennessee Tech: A Conversation with Dr. Robert Bell (Reprint) – SUSRIS – Aug 3, 2012
Related Material on SUSRIS:
- Business Forum: Education – Investing in Human Capital: Prince Faisal – SUSRIS – Jan 9, 2012
- Education and Development: Women as Agents of Change – SUSRIS – Jan 31, 2011
- Higher Education Opportunities for Women – SUSRIS – Mar 12, 2010
- Education System Undergoing Major Overhaul – SUSRIS – Apr 25, 2007
- The Time is Now in Saudi Arabia – Complete Interview – SUSRIS – Apr 27, 2006
- The Need for Education Reform – “Saudi System is the Problem” – SUSRIS – May 31, 2005