EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting school in a new country can be tough, but for many of Williamsport’s international students the culture shock is often replaced by a strong sense of community. Follow along with On the PULSE in our week-long series to discover the unique experiences of students who come here from across the globe.
Shanin Dougherty, the coordinator of International Programs at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, describes Samar Al-quraish, a 25-year-old Nursing major from Saudi Arabia, as a star student.
“She’s connected to the community, she’s a leader on campus, and she’s doing great in her classes,” Dougherty says. “She’s kind of the trifecta that we hope for.”
Of course, one may not know this by speaking with her — not right away, at least. Sweet and humble, Al-quraish is not one to call attention to herself. She is the first to point out how long it took her to qualify for the Nursing Program; being largely unfamiliar with English when she first came to the states, it took Al-quraish four tries over a nearly two-year period of studying and general classwork to get the proper English proficiency test score for acceptance.
She says that she has always wanted to work in the medical field.
“I like to help people. I like to make people feel comfortable; feel happy, healthy. And I think that’s what nurses do.”
Al-quraish discovered Penn College when her father-in-law’s oil company sent her husband-to-be there to acquire a paramedic certification. He first studied English in Philadelphia and then came to the college. While there, he decided to switch to the Nursing Program. A year and a half later in 2015, after getting married and hearing all the great things her husband was learning, Al-quraish decided she wanted to enroll in the program as well.
But life in America was not easy at first. Al-quraish, the oldest of four siblings, was used to being surrounded by relatives constantly — a fairly typical familial setup in Saudi Arabia.
Growing up, she would see her aunts, cousins and uncles every weekend at her grandmother’s house. Moving to Williamsport meant leaving these loved ones behind. Without them, the days felt lonely.
“When I came here,” Al-quraish says, “it was very difficult for me to adapt because I grew up so (involved) with my family.”
To cope, she and her husband would travel on the weekends, exploring their new home. “Everything is near us, we can go to New York City, Philadelphia, Washington — it’s only three hours, four hours. The first two or three years, we did that a lot, like every other week we traveled to these places. And we still like to travel, but as we get busier with school we can’t do it (as much).
Eventually, Al-quraish found a different kind of family at Penn College: her Saudi friends. Marrying young is popular in Saudi Arabia, and these women had also come to study with their husbands in Williamsport. Though they have since graduated, Al-quraish found comfort when they would all gather on the weekends for a traditional Saudi Arabian get-together.
“We used to do it like, in Saudi — all Saudi dishes,” she says. “We had Arabic coffee and desserts. Sometimes we had Arabic songs. And we have holidays in Saudi Arabia so we’d celebrate these holidays here too. So, yeah. We were trying to be a family here because all of our families are that way. We tried to make it like home.”
Although she misses these gatherings, Al-quraish is happy to spend time with her new American friends, some of whom are eager to learn about her Saudi culture.
“I’m an open person, and I’m really happy to talk about my religion (Islam), about my culture. I’m happy when someone asks me about that. But some of my friends didn’t ask. I felt they didn’t care to ask,” she admits.
To the follow-up question — Do you think some are afraid they’ll ask the wrong questions?— she grows pensive. “Maybe, maybe.” Al-quraish recalls a time when she and an American friend were studying in the library. Being that Muslims must pray five times a day, she asked her friend if it was alright if she took a break for prayer.
The girl replied with a shrug: “Yeah, I don’t care!” Al-quraish describes the mixed emotions she felt at this response. “I thought she might ask me about why, or how many, or where (we do this). But she didn’t. And I respect her, because maybe she didn’t want to embarrass me. I don’t know her point, but she told me, ‘Yeah I don’t care, go pray.’ ”
Fortunately, living in Williamsport has grown easier with time. After about a year, she felt like the city was her hometown. She enjoys the quiet, the lack of distractions from academics. Still, she does not think she and her husband will stay after graduation.
“I would like to, but I want to go home to my family. It’s hard to be away,” she says.
Looking back at her younger self, who first came to the U.S. in 2015, Al-quraish has one simple message.
“I will say, ‘I’m proud of you. You made it, you didn’t give up. And you changed a lot.’ I like how being abroad, … I don’t know how to say it — but maybe, raised me? It made me grow up more . . . It was a big difference for me.”