Editor’s note: Aziz Al Shammari is one of thousands of international students who leave their native lands behind to study at West Virginia University. His story contains many of the same feelings shared by others who come here from abroad for the first time—fear, loneliness and homesickness—but eventually those get replaced by a sense of home, of family, of belonging. WVU now is home not only to Al Shammari, but many of his family members from Saudi Arabia, who have joined him in Morgantown. WVU has not only changed Al Shammari, but he and his family have changed WVU.
Aziz Al Shammari’s journey began Dec. 28, 2006, with the winter evening air gnawing through layers of sweaters and jackets coiled around him as, more than 7,000 miles from his Saudi Arabian homeland, he inhaled his first breath of American air.
This new experience wasn’t quite a “warm” welcome.
That time of year, Al Shammari is used to Saudi Arabia’s average lows in the high-40s and average highs in the low-70s. For West Virginia, it’s a seasonal scorcher if the temps reach anywhere near that.
The airplane might as well have dropped Al Shammari off at Mars instead of Pittsburgh International Airport.
No direction. No English. No friends.
Just goose flesh.
If cold weather was the least desirable aspect of Morgantown, everything else must’ve been paradise.
After all, Al Shammari remains firmly engrained here in Mountaineer nation five years later.
At 19, Al Shammari envisioned living the American Dream. As a young adult in Saudi Arabia, he wanted to come to the United States to earn an education.
His elders, particularly a late grandfather, weren’t so keen on his decision to leave home.
“My grandfather didn’t want me to come,” Al Shammari said. “He was old-fashioned. But he said, ‘I can see it in your eyes that you’re ready to go.’ So he let me go.”
Al Shammari originally had his eyes set on Arizona, but a friend of his father’s urged him to give WVU a try. That friend called West Virginia the “perfect location.”
Once he landed in Pittsburgh on that icy December night, Al Shammari couldn’t stop thinking about what was ahead in Morgantown. Snow-topped trees dotted the landscape and captured his thoughts on the drive down Interstate 79.
“I kept thinking about how Morgantown would look,” Al Shammari said. “I was excited to see what the morning there would look like.”
His vision did not match reality.
“I expected Morgantown to be a big city, like New York,” he said.
He plunged ahead anyway.
-Aziz Al Shammari
Al Shammari enrolled in the Intensive English Program at WVU to hone his proficiency in English before choosing an academic course of study. The program offers international students assistance with housing, banking, counseling, health care and legal matters an initiative to acclimate them to the new environment. He also acquainted himself with members of the Saudi Students’ Association at WVU and lived in an apartment with fellow Saudis.
Still, Morgantown didn’t seem like home to Al Shammari. He struggled socially through his first semester.
“I didn’t like it here that much,” he admitted. “I didn’t speak English. I didn’t know how to make friends. So when we went on break, I went to California.”
A cousin suggested he move out there with him, but Al Shammari wasn’t about to give up on WVU.
He told his cousin he needed time to think. He returned to Morgantown and graduated from the Intensive English Program. By then, even sunny California couldn’t lure Al Shammari away from WVU.
Al Shammari says there wasn’t any particular “gotcha” moment that made him realize he wanted to be a Mountaineer; it was a gradual immersion into the WVU community that hooked him.
“I felt I had already built myself as a Mountaineer,” Al Shammari said. “I went to football and basketball games, enjoyed the green mountains in the summer and the snow in the winter.”
He had a few options regarding his living situation after returning from his break in California. He could have continued rooming with other Saudis, but he eventually decided to live in the residence halls with mostly American students.
That was the best approach to practicing and learning English, he thought. That decision would pay off.
Al Shammari would engage himself elsewhere, not only in the halls.
“I learned how everything works around here,” he said, “and realized that people here are very friendly. When I walked to the store or a restaurant, I could stop anybody and start a conversation with them.
He added, “When I compared California to West Virginia, I found I’d benefit more by staying. It’s much easier here to make friends, practice English and participate in school activities.”
He even learned to ice skate, a skill he otherwise would not have acquired in Saudi Arabia, where ice skating rinks are as prevalent as golf courses in the Arctic.
“It’s the best,” Al Shammari simply said about his newfound hobby. “Skating is the best.”
The clash of the cultures spills beyond just weather and sports. Social aspects posed the most challenging adjustment for Al Shammari.
Back home, Al Shammari would never get to mingle with females because of the customs. At WVU, several of his best friends are women. Early on, he made a friend who introduced him to her family and their life on a southern West Virginia farm.
Director, WVU Office of International Studies and Scholars
Social interaction between different groups in Saudi Arabia is so limited that Al Shammari said it’s uncommon to even meet residents from different regions of the country.
“You don’t get to know people in the north or south (of Saudi Arabia),” he said. “Here (at WVU), I’ve met Saudis from all places and all cultures. We’re best friends.”
Don’t bother bringing up sexual orientation over there, either. It’s a topic that’s off-limits.
In Saudi Arabia, he’d never meet openly bisexual or gay people, Al Shammari said. “Over there, I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d probably just walk away.” Here, he says, he has learned to meet with people of all backgrounds.
“I’d be a totally different person if I hadn’t left Saudi Arabia,” he says.
It took some time, but Al Shammari carved a niche in the WVU community. He no longer lacked direction or stumbled over the English language. Just as important, he was no longer alone.
Equipped with a bright smile and gentle demeanor, Al Shammari has amassed a bevy of friends in Morgantown.
He became president of the Saudi Students’ Association and serves as an international student liaison for the Student Government Association.
His progression has not gone unnoticed. Michael Wilhelm, director of the WVU Office of International Studies and Scholars, remembers meeting Al Shammari not long after he arrived in Morgantown. At the time, Wilhelm was an instructor in the Intensive English Program.
“It was clear from the first meeting that he was a great kid who was very motivated to improve his English, but he really had a long way to go,” Wilhelm said. “His progress over the years at WVU has been simply amazing, and I don’t mean only in terms of his language skills.
“I have always appreciated the desire that Aziz has to put himself out there, to get to know new people both inside and outside of the international student community, and to simply get involved in a full student life here at WVU.”
Wilhelm believes the University community has benefited from Al Shammari coming here.
“He has led both the Saudi Students’ Association and the International Students Organization into a more visible position at WVU,” he said. “As the number of international undergraduate students has increased in Morgantown, it has been essential that University administrators establish a working relationship with the leaders of the various student groups, and Aziz was not only accessible, but would actively cultivate these types of relationships.”
As an Student Government representative, Al Shammari’s goal is to create unity between cultures and help assimilate international students with American culture.
He’s succeeded by introducing his family a mix of cousins, brothers and uncles to WVU.
Here’s the current roster: Aziz, Mathwad, Mamadouh, Youssef, Muteb, Sultan, Khalid, Fayez, Talal and another Aziz. Most are registered as either pre-engineering or Intensive English Program students at WVU.
“I feel responsible for them coming here,” he said with a hint of pride. “It was their decision to come here, but from my side they heard how beautiful the people of West Virginia are.”
In addition to his studies and own personal life here, he’s had to serve as a keeper/guardian of sorts for his relatives. He’s picked up each one from the airport, assisted them with their paperwork and schoolwork, and helped them adjust to the culture and landscape.
“If one of them wants to go to Kroger, I’ll go with them,” he said. “If one needs something from the University, I’ll call for them. We’re always together.”
Several like to “show off that they’re Americanized,” Al Shammari joked. They all carry iPods and cell phones. Some sport New York Yankees caps. Others try to talk with American accents.
“I would never have imagined listening to Akon and American music,” Al Shammari said.
Saudi Arabia comes to Morgantown
By the same token, Saudi Arabian culture has infiltrated WVU with the arrival of Al Shammari and his family.
They’ve made many friends and have incorporated them into their circle.
Middle Eastern cuisine and smoking hookah, a staple of their culture, have infiltrated the Mountaineer community.
Bryanna DeFazio, an occupational therapy student, met one of the Al Shammaris Youssef randomly in the Mountainlair. The two struck up a conversation.
“Youssef made me an honorary cousin,” DeFazio said. “Anytime I see an Al Shammari, I hear ‘Al Shammari! Al Shammari!”
They even gave her an Arabic first name, Ghazala, which means beautiful woman or cute animal.
“After summer break, when I arrived back to Morgantown, I saw Youssef for the first time and he hugged me and said, ‘Oh cousin, I’ve missed you so much,’” she said. “Little things like that would make anyone’s day a little better.”
DeFazio has taken a stab at speaking Arabic. She returns the favor by helping them with their English.
“The boys like to make fun of me when I say something wrong or when it sounds funny without the proper accents,” DeFazio said.
“I do my best to help with their English. Sometimes during conversation we come across a word one of the cousins doesn’t understand. I always do something to make them learn that word and its meaning.”
Kristen Pennington, a journalism student, met Al Shammari through Student Government, where she serves as executive secretary.
“My opinion about people of the world has been reinforced by the fact that a good laugh and great company can be found by any fellow human, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, race or creed,” Pennington said. “Aziz is a friend I will always cherish, and be proud to call my friend. He represents his country very well at WVU.”
More to come
With about another year of studies before graduation, Al Shammari isn’t in a rush to leave.
Alas, he needs to incorporate more family members into the American and Mountaineer culture. This summer, Bander and Sultan are expected to join the clan in Morgantown. By fall 2012, they hope to add Khaled and Mathwid, as well. Then they’ll have enough for a soccer team.
But out of all Al Shammaris at WVU, Aziz is the only one who plans to stay in the United States for the long-term. He’s uncertain about his future career, but would love to travel and live in different cities here.
For now, he is enjoying new relationships and old ones, that have come together magically in Morgantown.
It’s still cold here sometimes. But he’s no longer 7,000 miles from home.
By Jake Stump
CONTACT: University Relations-News
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