LONDON // An array of problems and challenges facing female Saudi students studying in the West has been addressed at a unique gathering over the weekend at a British university. More than 100 female undergraduates and post-graduate Saudi Arabian students met for the first time at an academic forum described as a "landmark event", at the University of Sheffield, South Yorkshire.
With increasing numbers of young Saudi women heading abroad to study under scholarship schemes sponsored by King Abdullah, the gathering addressed the cultural and educational problems that this emerging intellectual force can encounter at UK universities. "It was a chance for us to share our experiences and our achievements," said Ahlam al Zahrani, a post-graduate student at Sheffield who organised the event, the first of its kind to be held in the United Kingdom.
"The aim was, on one hand, to let the girls know that they are not alone in the problems they face. We all face them and, hopefully, the sharing of our experiences will make us stronger. "Also, we wanted to pool our knowledge so that it could be of help to the girls who come here after us. If our experiences can relieve the stress of future students, then it will all have been worthwhile." Students from universities all over the UK and Ireland travelled to the event, which was co-hosted by the University of Sheffield and the Saudi Students' Clubs and Schools, in association with the Saudi Cultural Bureau.
Ms al Zahrani, 34, who is chief female coordinator of the students' clubs, said yesterday that the difficulties highlighted by the meeting were both academic and cultural. "The main challenge for students studying in the UK is the differences between the way higher education is conducted here and the way it is done both at home and in the US," she said. "In Saudi Arabia and America, it is very much based on lectures and the classroom. Here, you very much work on your own initiative.
"You might have lectures on only two days a week. You are given guidelines and then you have to take the lead, researching in libraries. It is not always easy - it requires discipline, organisation and time management." Many of the girls also had problems adjusting to life in Britain, said Ms al Zahrani because of "conservative attitudes that make it very difficult to socialise". The situation between the two very different cultures, she added, was made worse because of what she described as the often-false image of life in Saudi Arabia portrayed by the western media.
"The British do get a good image of Saudi people from the media," she said. "It is important for all students, girls and boys, to realise that each of us is an ambassador for our country and so, by our behaviour, we must try to change attitudes. "And we must keep trying. We benefit from very generous scholarships from King Abdullah and, in my case as a post-graduate student, from the ministry of higher education. It is something we must repay while we are in Britain by the way we conduct ourselves."
Ms al Zahrani is nearing the end of six years' study in the UK and is writing her 70,000-word doctoral thesis on ethnographic research into feminine health in Saudi Arabia, which she has carried out at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sheffield. "Like all the Saudi women studying in Britain, we want to go home and contribute to life there, be it in the field of education, health, technology or whatever," she said.
"We have been given this precious opportunity of studying abroad and it is down to us to make the most of these benefits to play our part in improving life in our own society. "The staff at the University of Sheffield have been so supportive of me from day one. It's now my turn to share my knowledge, and to support other female students from Saudi who need help, whether it be a listening ear, or someone to assess academic work."
Carrie Warr, the university's director of external relations, added: "The University of Sheffield is immensely proud and delighted to have co-hosted the very first academic forum for Saudi female students studying in the UK and Ireland. "The university's international students - and particularly those from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general - represent some of our most exceptional students.
"These talented students are tomorrow's leaders, and we are honoured to be able to partner with them on their academic journey." email@example.com