August 5, 2011 — On a recent summer afternoon, students from the University of Virginia and Saudi Arabia's Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University, or PNU, escaped the blistering July temperatures chatting in Arabic in a stately – and air-conditioned – Charlottesville house.
As the scent of Arab food cooking in the kitchen filled the air, students sat comfortably on chairs and the floor in the foyer of the University's Lorna Sundberg International Center discussing politics, social media, sports and religion. The conversation drifted between Arabic and English.
"They help us with our English. We help them with their Arabic," said Aseel Al-Muhaimeed, one of six female Saudi students who arrived July 2 for a new, month-long intensive language and culture program that was custom-made for them.
The program took shape quickly after a team of U.Va. educators attended the International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education in Riyadh in mid-April.
"When I got back to Charlottesville, Barb Toth from PNU contacted me about our proposal and asked if a group of students could come this summer," said Dudley Doane, who directs the University's Summer and Special Academic Programs as well as the International Studies Office. "Of course, we were thrilled at the opportunity."
U.Va. was one of nearly 430 higher education institutions to attend the Riyadh conference, and Toth, an American-born associate professor in PNU's College of Languages and Translation, said the University's proposal stood out from the others she saw. She liked that the program was student-centered and offered the opportunity to study English in a native-speaking environment. "Dr. Doane's well-written proposal argued strongly for U.Va. being our choice," she said.
Jane Boatner, an English as a Second Language instructor at U.Va., and Paige Zelikow, a staff member in U.Va.'s Summer Session office, began putting together the course schedule. "I am doing the reading and writing portion with Paige," Boatner said. "She does the listening and speaking sessions."
"What was cool in planning was I got a lot of interest from undergrad women who knew enough about Saudi Arabia and the region to be really excited to be a part of the program," Boatner added. She was careful to hire only females as conversation partners out of sensitivity to the division of gender in Saudi schools.
She said there was also a big cultural component to the class schedule, which included lectures on politics and global studies. Students visited Monticello, celebrated the Fourth of July, attended a concert on the Downtown Mall and took in a presentation of "My Fair Lady" at the Heritage Theatre Festival.
"What was wonderful was that the women I hired as conversation partners also took the Saudi students on impromptu field trips," Boatner said. "They went to a local roller derby and tubing on the James River," with the visiting students singing the tune "Wouldn't It be Loverly?" from "My Fair Lady" as they bobbed down the river.
When asked what their favorite diversions are, the group of Saudi students yelled in unison "Shopping!"
"So there were also field trips to T.J.Maxx and Marshalls," Boatner said. Yet she was surprised when she thought about ditching a planned trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in favor of a jaunt to Short Pump, a huge shopping outlet near Richmond. "The girls said they wanted to go to the Blue Ridge because they had never seen mountains before."
Not all was fun and games. The Saudi students wrote two papers, in English, on topics ranging from the different aspects of American and Saudi culture to how to tie a headdress. "Three of the women have written about U.Va., Edgar Allan Poe and Charlottesville," Boatner said.
Speaking from Riyadh, PNU's Toth said the students will be required to give presentations about their time at U.Va. when courses resume in Saudi Arabia in the fall. "The students will be doing a formal student/faculty-wide presentation as well as informal classroom presentations," she said.
Toth reflected on her chance meeting with Doane at the education conference. "Right now, I'm looking at Dr. Doane's business card. This small piece of paper was the start of this significant collaborative program," she said. "Dr. Doane's card provided me with U.Va.'s contact information that led to his proposal we couldn't refuse, and the rest is history.
"We hope this relationship can continue and that U.Va. students can come to Riyadh."