Saudi scholarship students and the problems they face
King Abdullah Scholarships Program (KASP) has absolutely changed the demography of the Saudi society. According to statistics disclosed by Minister of Higher Education Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Angari during the graduation ceremony of the 4th group of Saudi students held in Ottawa Convention Center in Canada (January 2014), the number of Saudi students studying abroad is 150,000 in 30 different countries, not to forget the number of students who already have graduated and returned to Saudi Arabia that exceeded 55,000 so far. That is how the vocabulary Mubtaatheen (for plural and Mubtaath for singular) has entered the lexicon to represent this relatively new significant segment of the society. The word originates from the verb “Baatha” meaning send, and when used with a person, it usually refers to a specific mission the sender assigns to the one sent.
Most Saudi families have at least one Mubtaath among their members. In fact, it is very unlikely that you do not have one within the circle of your close family, or among your distant relatives, your friends or at least acquaintances. Even though those students live abroad, their mere existence has created new life patterns for their families back home. Many parents have bought laptops and learned to Skype their sons and daughters. Most of them have learned to use smartphone applications such as Viber (before its ban in the Kingdom), Tango, Line, Instagram and Telegram to contact their kids on a daily basis. Those parents now know the time of major holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and even Halloween in the countries where their children are studying because it is a possible opportunity for a visit by either side. So, do not be surprised next time you hear a lady in her 60s saying she is traveling to visit her daughter on Thanksgiving, or if you hear an elderly man saying he cannot wait until it is Christmas holiday and his son is here! Now, Saudis are not only realizing that people have different ways of living, but also are living and practicing this realization!
Adapting to the lifestyle of the country where a student earns a scholarship is beneficial because it contributes to his/her growth as a person and accordingly boosts his/her educational performance. Ironically, however, the more a student adapts to the lifestyle of the country of his/her scholarship the more likely he/she will have difficulty readjusting to the Saudi lifestyle after finishing studies.
Those returned students are certainly facing serious difficulties related to their readjustment to the Saudi lifestyle. Many have talked about unemployment, despite their earned degrees, as their biggest challenge and disappointment. Many have also written about the challenges Saudi female students face when they return to a too-closed society that neglects their freedom of movement even though they practiced that right in the country where they were studying. However, apart from the gender-oriented and practical-oriented challenges, no one has talked about the difficulties that emerge from the differences of social context and cultural expectations.
The globalization of Capitalist values has enhanced competition in all professions worldwide, and therefore has put too much emphasis on one’s professional accomplishments. Hence, living in highly individualistic societies forces one to think of oneself as an independent person whose achievements determine who she or he is. People who live in those societies tend to equate their worthiness as human beings with their practical and professional accomplishments, which cut off the range of their social life. Thus, they usually have depression, anxiety and sleep disorders for their sense of accomplishment is always threatened, never fulfilled!
In contrary, those who merely live to fulfill their practical goals for the few years they lived abroad, are overwhelmed when they are back with showers of invitations and streams of social gatherings. The idea of being a member of a bigger social entity and living according to its expectations might seem extremely weird. Family members who insist on you joining for dinner or lunch and not accepting any excuses including having real work to do will feel even weirder. Seeing others chilling and lounging around all week long and only thinking about what their next meal or when their next gathering will be a bit shocking!
As a returned student, I frequently found myself in a position of justifying myself and explaining that my life cannot revolve around non-stop social gatherings. Living as an independent individual in the States for seven years, it is not surprising to find social interactions that are not based on common interests and/or mutual hobbies more of social obligations than anything. Seeing yourself in isolation of your familial background and social context in a highly-connected society is almost impossible.
While obsession with individual and practical accomplishments can be very harmful on a long term, the too-much socially active lifestyle means conformity and sameness, which can kill one’s individuality and creativity. But is a life that revolves around sending and receiving e-mails and constantly working on different projects and assignments, professional performance, normal or even human? Does “individuality” in the way we define it nowadays always mean “humanity”? On the other hand, does what we call “social” in our society really mean “social”?
I think we need to redefine our concept of individuality and challenge our conventional views of socially-active life to be able to live a balanced life that is equally social and professionally successful, and most importantly human!
The article was originally published on Arab News.