If you have recently visited UCF's Barbara Ying's Center for Multicultural and Multilingual Studies, the obvious presence of a large Middle Eastern student population may strike you as out of the ordinary. In fact, according to CMMS, 63 percent of its 342 students who enroll at the center come from the Middle East.
Established in 1996 by Dr. Nelson Ying, the Barbara Ying Center aims to provide English language education for international students, mainly those seeking to improve their required Test of English as a Foreign Language scores in order to enroll at UCF.
The statistics at CMMS are not so out of the ordinary, however. According to the Institute of International Education's Open Doors 2014 report, the number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by eight percent in the 2013-14 academic year.
Florida is among the top 10 states that host 61 percent of all international students, the Open Doors report states, with 31 percent of those coming from China, 12 percent from India, eight percent from South Korea and six percent from Saudi Arabia.
Although 65 percent of international students' primary source of funding is through personal and family funds, the majority of Saudi students come to the United States with J-1 visas through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. The scholarship covers their tuition, monthly stipend for student, spouse and children, medical and dental coverage, and annual round trip tickets for students and family.
Florida is among the top 10 states with the most students from Saudi Arabia coming to the United States with a King Abdullah Scholarship, according to Saudi Arabian Cultural statistics, and part of that is an effort to fulfill the requirements of work markets across the kingdom, according to the scholarship web site.
The scholarship started in 2005 when King Abdullah and President George W. Bush decided a cultural exchange might breach prejudice and discrimination against Saudi Arabia and reduce negative perceptions post 9/11.
"I have learned a lot about the American way of living, American society, I have met lots of people from different countries … because we are different people with different personalities," says Ibrahim Alharbi, a medical engineering student at UCF who came with a KAS five years ago.
Laura Monroe, assistant director at CMMS, said when and why international students come to the United States largely depends on the needs of each country, or an entity or institution within that country that may have a need for their students to speak English. And although the majority of CMMS' students may be from the Middle East, not all of them are from Saudi Arabia.
"What happens is each embassy opens up specific states to their students. So they're only allowed to go to specific states that are OK'd by the embassy. This is primarily for students that are on scholarship. So we work with different groups in different countries," says Monroe.
Monroe emphasized that the center's main challenges have been the former absence of a director for more than a year and a half and not enough marketing to attract students from other locations. Diana Vreeland, the new director who recently took post last month, declined an interview, but Monroe says the center's aim is not to have 63 percent of the students coming from the Middle East, but rather a balanced distribution.
"What I'm finding is there's still issuing visas for Saudi students, but I've also noticed the numbers are going down for sure … I've seen a little bit of an up in Chinese students, but next time it may be completely different," she said.
Laura Maldonado, a student at the center, came from Colombia about six months ago, said in one of her classes, out of the 15 students there, she and two others are the only Latin American students and the rest are Middle Eastern. However, she said it has been an enriching cultural experience for her and it forces her to speak English.
On the other end, the story is a little different. Othman Alghamdi, who has been in the United States for five months from Saudi Arabia, said the fact that there are so many students from his home country poses a challenge for him as he can rely on his peers.
"How it's affected the classroom, it's just different dynamics. In this program we used to have mostly Korean students. Coming from mostly Arabic-speaking countries, their needs are different," said Nicole Carrasquel, an instructor at the center.
Not all students come to the CMMS center with the aim of enrolling at UCF, she added. Some just want to improve their English and come to the center for a semester and then go back to their countries.
"I think the most rewarding thing is just learning about the different cultures that are here … both teaching American culture but also learning to understand people sometimes from countries you have never met people from," Carrasquel said.
Juan David Romero is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future.