Arab students in U.S.: A 'portrait of truth'


In the United States these days social issues and debates dominate newspapers and news programs. They bring everything out in the open and leave nothing at all to chance.

During my tour of the States last year, I met many Arabs - students and professionals. And frankly, though I found some good students, many of them seemed far from what they should be.

For example, I met some who have spent four or five years in the United States but could hardly utter three straight sentences in English. I met some who were doing postgraduate studies in political science but had not read a U.S. paper in two years. For them William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal - two diehard critics and enemies of the Arabs - could well have been soccer players.

One of the strangest and most puzzling encounters was with someone who assured me that the best way to live in the United States is to have minimum contact with Americans. But why live in America if you don't expose yourself to the American experience?

Sadly, many of the Arab students were not active in campus activities, where they could augment and enhance their education with practical experience in student government, clubs or public relations. What amazed me even more was the low level of English proficiency, even in masters and doctoral degree candidates who need English in their fields: Many could not speak, let alone write, coherently.

I believe that either they don't work hard, or they don't mix with their fellow students. I find no excuse for all this. 

I also believe that the United States is a place where one can make or break himself. It is a land where the education given in classrooms pales in comparison to the education found in books, newspapers, television, forums and in meetings with people of different backgrounds, cultures, thoughts and ideas. It is not a place where we go just to get a degree and nothing more. 

I discussed with the Arab students several issues that were in the news in the United States, including the Whitewater affair. I also asked them to name at least four of the Democratic/Republican members of Congress, explain the abortion debate, and summarize the President's viewpoint on education and his nuclear weapons reduction plan.

I am embarrassed to say what I found, especially when I met some non-Arab immigrants with a firm grip of their new environment. 

Some Vietnamese I met at a 7-11 store had been in the United States for only two and a half years, but impressed me with their knowledge and sense of purpose. The Vietnamese cited three goals they had set for themselves - English, job and education. Already they and other Asian students have risen to the top in colleges and universities, outshining their American counterparts.

A Chinese students said to me: "Our work ethics also filter into our education and we try to excel. There is no time to waste." 

Hearing this remark does not surprise me. It explains why the world around us is going ahead with such speed.

The great American journalist Walter Lippman once said: "The task of a journalist is to portray an objective portrait of the truth on which the citizen can act."

Perhaps the "portrait of truth" I gathered from Arab students in America will inspire future students to make more of their opportunity to learn and grow. 

Let us work hard for a better future.


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