When Saad Alshahrani came to graduate school at Washington State University, he didn’t speak a bit of English.
Addled by the long flights from Saudi Arabia, he tried to walk out of the airport in Seattle. He didn’t understand that his new home was still 300 miles to the east. The airport officials put him on a small plane to Pullman, which left him in a near-empty airport just after midnight.
“Imagine that,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody. No taxi, and no hotel.”
Fortunately, Devon Anderson, who works for the WSU Foundation, saw Alshahrani get off the plane. She understood that he was a new student. She found him a place to sleep. The next day, she helped him find his way at the school.
Now Alshahrani is a third-year doctoral student. He speaks fluent English and is progressing quickly in his studies in economics, natural resources, and statistics. And in his spare time he teaches Arabic to American students.
“I had time,” he says. “And I thought…I could teach something about my language and tradition.”
Before attending graduate school, Alshahrani had never visited the United States. He finished college in Saudi Arabia as a math major, and the country’s central bank offered to send him abroad to study natural resources and economics. “They offered me a job,” he says. “But in order to get that position, I have to have a degree in economics or anything related to economics.”
He chose WSU because of Ron Mittelhammer, director of the School of Economic Sciences. The economist specializes in econometrics—the combination of statistics with economic theory. His books are well known in Saudi Arabia, and Alshahrani wanted a chance to work with him.
In Pullman Alshahrani was intensely homesick for a time, and he struggled with the differences in language, food, and culture. He thought about going home, but then decided to settle in, adapt, “work hard and prove myself,” he says. He powered through his intensive English courses, passing each level the first time. “He was just so willing to take risks and try,” says Jeannie Bagby, an instructor at WSU’s Intensive American Language Center. “And he’s really gifted about learning language.”
Since then, he has taken on duties as an ambassador for other Saudi students coming to Pullman, and he reaches out to non-Arab students who want to learn more about his language and culture.
Last year, after being asked by several students for private lessons in Arabic, Alshahrani went to the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures with a proposal to teach a beginning course on language and culture. The instruction he received in his first months at WSU provided him with a good framework for teaching another language, he says.
The department OK’d the idea, requiring that at least six students sign up for the summer Arabic course for it to run. Within the first few days of registration, 14 had signed on. “We even had a waiting list,” says Alshahrani.
He designed the course for students with no prior knowledge of Arabic. Using videos and textbooks, and enlisting the help of other native speakers, he immersed his class in a daily dose of the language flavored with stories, music, and details from his life back home.
Mary Cookson signed up for Alshahrani’s summer course for the experience of learning a new, very different, language. “It’s not an easy class,” she says. “But I have loved it.”
Cookson plans to teach English as a second language and is enrolled in a University of Idaho master’s degree program. “They want you to have a recent experience with a foreign language so you can have empathy with your students,” she says, explaining her pursuit of Arabic.
The summer class was not typical for an undergraduate foreign language course, she says. “I am 56 years old, and there are people older than me and some who are very young. It’s just a real eclectic group of people.”
“I like my students,” Alshahrani says. “They all seem very interested and hardworking. The worst score in my midterm was A-minus.”
He says teaching the class further connects him with the community and gives him a creative outlet.
Settling into his favorite off-campus hangout, Zoe Coffee, Alshahrani grins as he talks about his expanding role as student, friend, teacher, and ambassador at WSU. “Pullman? I love it. When it’s time to work, this place makes you work,” he says. “But there’s also room for fun.”