International spotlight: 'We are welcomed'

After learning about his best friend’s positive experience at the ELS Language Center’s St. Paul campus and hearing his improved English language abilities, Mohammed Al Zaher decided to leave his hometown of Al-Qatif, Saudi Arabia, and come to Minnesota in September 2005.

Mohammed Al Zaher

Mohammed Al Zaher

Once he arrived, Al Zaher began study at ELS and started the University of St. Thomas English program (USTEP) in February 2006. Al Zaher returned to Saudi Arabia that summer, and after an extended visit due to renewing his visa, he returned in the fall and began studying at St. Thomas as a full-time student in February 2007.

Although Al Zaher had already completed an accounting degree from the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) in Saudi Arabia, he knew he wanted a change. He was striving for more opportunities to meet people, form relationships, and pursue his love of writing. Coming to St. Thomas would allow all of these things.

For Al Zaher, adapting to Minnesotan culture was "not too hard." “Some things took time to adjust to, like the language (which was helped by watching “Friends”), individualism, communication styles, using public transportation and figuring out its schedule (people mainly walk or drive in Saudi Arabia), and the concept of family. In Saudi Arabia, family includes extended family and friends, rather than the parents and siblings sense of family here.” 

After those adjustments and adapting to winter’s shocking weather, Al Zaher has enjoyed his time at St. Thomas and Minnesota. “I like how the St. Thomas community sticks together, especially in times of crisis. The Twin Cities area is great, especially by being such an international area and getting to see people from all over the world. Also, the nature of Minnesota is beautiful, especially the Boundary Waters.”

Even with all this, it is still hard to not think of home. Al Zaher misses the beach, kabsa (a dish of spiced rice, vegetables, and meat traditionally served for lunch), eating seafood every day, the feeling of community in his home city, and above all, he misses his family. His father, mother, six brothers, and three sisters still live in Saudi Arabia. Although he misses these things, Al Zaher would encourage other students to study abroad.

His words of wisdom for all: “As Arabic philosophy says, ‘Work for your life like you live forever. Work for your afterlife like you die tomorrow.’ Also, take one day at a time.”

For those interested in studying outside of their home country: “It is a good experience and students should take the chance. Once a student has come to study in another country, they should not be afraid of initial failure. Do not think of going home right away after doing poorly on the first quiz or test. Remember that it is not just an education, it is a lifetime investment. Also, specifically for Saudi Arabian students, know that we are welcomed.”

Al Zaher is currently a senior majoring in communications and accounting. A variety of activities, including the Saudi Club, GMSA, HANA, and OISS’s Mentor Program keep Al Zaher busy and active on campus. He enjoys watching movies, reading, sports, and meeting people. In May 2010, he plans to graduate and hopes to stay in the Twin Cities area. “I feel like this is home now. I would like to stay and go to graduate school, possibly the MBA program at St. Thomas, or work full time. I am still planning, but I would like to stay for a long time.”