I recently celebrated a milestone. I finished my first year at Newcastle University in the UK. Just three more years to go!
For those readers who have been following my journey will remember that I am working on my PhD in applied linguistics at Newcastle University in Newcastle upon Tyne, which is a good four hours north of London by train.
I have visited Europe on several occasions, but always as a tourist.Now I am a legal resident and obliged to follow all that is British, from paying my taxes to making sure I get to class on time. As a Saudi, I entered the UK at Heathrow Airport with some reluctance and a little bit of fear.
My welcome to England, I must admit, was more than a little nerve-wracking. My brother and I spent nearly eight hours in customs as we waited in never-ending queues to pass inspection and have a chest X-Ray, which is required of all students. But I have to admit that since then my exit from and re-entry into UK has been a very pleasant experience.
To tell you the truth, it has become more like coming back home. That might sound a bit extreme to some of you, but this is what I feel, once my brother and I arrived in Newcastle and were settled in our flat.Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect from Newcastle University.
But one thing I have learned is that the faculty is very excited to have international students. The welcome committee at orientation gathering and many professors and staff afterwards made me feel at home and welcomed me in my new and strange environment.
The group I study with is a mix of Saudis, a Libyan, an Egyptian, a Colombian, a few Chinese, and other nationalities. We have become like one big family, sharing study notes and helping each other navigate through the university system. My fellow students and my instructor are my support group. Without them attending university would be very difficult. Finding the campus mosque and making friends there has been a blessing, thanks God.
I find the Saudis, as I have mentioned previously, too insular. As a rule they are not eager to socialize with other students. But Western students, whether British or American, are friendly and go out of their way to be helpful. So helpful, that sometimes I have to take a break from them or gently remind them of the boundaries in being social with a Saudi woman.
But the important thing is that it’s not only a cultural lesson for them but for me as well. We are all trying to find our footing when developing personal and professional relationships.The most important thing is that my professors give me all the help I need to accomplish my goal in earning my doctorate. They are here for me and to see that I succeed.
They seem just as excited and eager to help me achieve my goals as I am about making a good impression on them.I’ve learned to take a train to and from the university.
I’ve learned to regularly pay my TV license to avoid the dire warnings from television company that they will take away my television set if I don’t pay (although I’m told by my British friends that has never happened).
I’ve learned that British Telecom is more bureaucratic than Saudi Telecom and 10 times more expensive. I’ve learned the British love shopping as much as Saudis but everything here is twice as expensive as in Saudi Arabia. I can still get Happy Meals at McDonald’s but the McDonald’s restaurants in Saudi Arabia are cleaner and the staff friendlier. And I have found Starbucks is the same everywhere, except there is no family section and everyone is speaking English and not Arabic.
I have learned that the British health system is among the most organized and trustworthy in the world. It doesn’t only treat you but also educate you about your health issues. In UK, all what it takes to answer my health questions is to call the NHS free telephone number, where a friendly and well-educated nurse provide me with all needed help and information.
I have learned more about human nature, Western culture (it still surprises me to see young women wear short skirts in freezing weather!) and how to live in a foreign country without dozens of family members watching over me.
I’ve learned what to accept and what to reject in Western culture. It’s not easy for foreign-born Muslims to integrate into British society, but the experience alone is worth the difficulties we face.Having said that, though, it’s very tough living on the tuition given to me and my fellow Saudi students.
The recent downturn in the global economy has hit us hard. It was tough before, but now prices seem to climb daily and it’s a struggle to pay rent, utilities, school supplies and eat food. This is a legitimate issue among Saudi students, but somehow we all manage.
To sum up, I have the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques as well as the Ministry of Higher Education to thank for their confidence in providing women such as myself a quality education. I think Saudi Arabia will be better for it when I return.