Perfect Pitch

Story by Robin Roenker
Photo by Shaun Ring

On campus for only four months, Omani student Abdul Majeed Al-Hashmi is already making the most of his time at the University of Kentucky. In addition perfecting his already strong English in intensive 20-hour-per-week coursework at UK’s Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) in the College of Arts & Sciences, he’s also found time to pursue a new passion: opera singing.

“I love it,” said Al-Hashmi, a native of a small village called Adam in central Oman.

“In my country, I cannot sing opera, but here I take lessons. [In Oman] we have a very strict, traditional culture. But we came to America, and everything is changed now.”

“We love our country and our culture, but here, you can do what you want to do,” added fellow CESL classmate Hussein Al-Lawati, a native of Oman’s capital city of Muscat.

A New Partnership

Al-Hashmi and Al-Lawati are just two among roughly 70 Omani students to have arrived on UK’s campus since mid-October. They represent the first wave of a partnership between the University of Kentucky and the Omani Ministry of Higher Education, which plans to award some 2,500 scholarships to graduating Omani high school students to study in the United States over the next five years. (Other U.S. universities hosting Omani scholarship students include Washington State University, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Ohio University, Oregon State University, and the University of Minnesota.)

Oman, situated on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and bordered by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, is an Arabic-speaking nation, though students there are required to have English instruction in grades 1-12, Al-Hashmi and Al-Lawati said.

Therefore, most of the students arrived on campus with at least an advanced beginner to intermediate grasp of English, said Tom Clayton, a professor in UK’s English Department and Center for English as a Second Language. Still, they needed a chance to improve and perfect their English speaking, reading, and writing skills before beginning their undergraduate courses of study at UK.

CESL’s new “conditional admission” policy—in which international students who are academically qualified are given admission to a UK degree program pursuant to their completion of the ESL program—is giving the Omani students that opportunity.

Once the students work their way through the five levels of the ESL program, they will be granted full admittance to UK and will be allowed to begin their programs of study. Most of the 70 Omani students already at UK, all 17- and 18-year-olds, plan to major in areas of engineering or business and economics.

“Typically, a highly motivated student will advance from one level [of the ESL coursework] to the next in one eight-week period. So, they can move through our entire series of levels through the course of one academic year and one summer term,” Clayton said.  “We expect that after one academic year, most of the Omani students will be ready for matriculation in their degree programs.”

While the Omani students are eager to begin their engineering and business studies, for now, they’re enjoying the opportunity to refine their English-language skills, they said.

“Everyday, we have practice in reading, listening, grammar, and speaking,” Al-Hashmi said. “Our teachers in the CESL are very good. They bring in items from outside of class to teach us about American culture, American foods, American idioms. They try to make it interesting for us.”

Students in the ESL program have classes for four hours a day, five days a week. Several have opted to live on campus in Smith Hall, UK’s Global Village living-learning residence hall, allowing them a chance to practice their English 24/7.

The immersion into American English, including the slang and idioms used most frequently by American college students—as opposed to the formal, British English they had been taught at home—has been interesting, but also challenging, said Al-Lawati.

Cultural Exchange

For many of the Omani students, the chance to study at an American university—and all the opportunities they felt that would bring—was simply too good to pass up.

“The top universities in the world are from the USA. If you have English, and you study in the United States, you can return home and have many opportunities,” Al-Hashmi said, noting that in Oman, there is only one university, located in the capital city of Muscat.

Omani student Tarik Al-Kharusi, a native of Suwaq, loves fixing and repairing things, and had grown up dreaming of studying mechanical engineering at an American university. Even still, when the scholarship arrived, the thought of leaving his home and his parents worried him.

“Before I came to the U.S., I think, ‘How can I live in the U.S.? How can I go outside of my country and leave my parents and my culture?’  Sometimes people only see on TV, things about American government making war everywhere. But now I see that’s not true. The people here are so friendly.”

“Our thoughts [about the US] have changed,” agreed Al-Lawati.

That type of positive cultural exchange between the university’s American students and its international ones is precisely the goal of UK’s strategic plan for internationalization, which was enacted three years ago, said Susan Carvalho, UK’s Associate Provost for International Affairs.

“We established this plan to increase our number of international undergraduates on campus, to bring in more international curriculum, to send more UK students for study abroad, and to bring a greater visibility to our global research,” Carvalho said.

The successful long-term partnership with Oman is just one of many that Carvalho’s office is hoping to build.

“One of our goals for having increased numbers of international students on campus is to have global conversations in every undergraduate classroom. We want our UK students to be able to have international friends and be world citizens who are comfortable with and respectful of cultural differences,” Carvalho said.

Tina Durbin, assistant director and lecturer with UK’s CESL program, is teaching several of the Omani students in her ESL Level 3 class this term, expressed the same idea this way: “Exchanges between countries is awesome, but an exchange of ideas between students is even better.”

Fresh Spirit

In just a short time on campus, the Omani students have already made their mark. Last fall, they celebrated and shared customs surrounding their country’s National Day on Nov. 18, dressing in traditional garments and playing traditional music in the quad outside UK’s Student Center.

Sarah Almageni, a 23-year-old Omani native and UK junior majoring in community communication and leadership in the College of Agriculture, has helped serve as a liaison for the new Omani students along with her sister, Nola Almageni, 31, a master’s degree student in the UK College of Communications and Information Studies.

Both sisters work in the ESL office part-time and have helped the new Omani students set up bank accounts, locate medical help and generally settle in to life in Lexington.”

“It’s been like having 70 little brothers and sisters on campus,” Sarah Almageni said.

“We’ve started to get enthusiastic about starting an Omani student club and doing even more events.”

In addition to celebrating and sharing their own culture with American students, Durbin praised the Omani students’ willingness to try new things as well—from participating in Lexington’s Thriller party on Halloween to frequenting the downtown ice skating rink.

For his part, Al-Kharusi plans to use some of his free time to learn to swim at UK’s Lancaster Aquatic Center, something he never got a chance to try at home.

The Omani students have “brought a really fresh spirit into the Center for ESL,” said Clayton. “They’re a lot of fun to be around.”

Al-Hashmi, Al-Kharusi, and Al-Lawati have each moved up at least one level in their English proficiency since beginning their ESL studies as part of the first 50 Omani students to arrive at UK in mid-October.

They said they can readily see their own improvement: steadily, they find themselves understanding more and more bits of English outside of the classroom.

And, they’ve begun to be an inspiration to the newer group of 20 Omani students, who just arrived on campus in January.

“The new students start out very disappointed. They say, ‘English is very difficult. I can not do English,’” said Al-Hashmi. “But I try to change their mind. I told them, ‘if you believe you can do it, you can.’” 

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