One thing that often draws foreigners to Saudi Arabia is how secretive everything is. Until recently, there were no visitor visas issued so no tourists came here. Public photography wasn’t legal, so you didn’t see a lot of pictures from here. The culture in itself is also a bit private and secretive, so it’s not surprise that not a lot is known about this place.
I have worked at different universities within Saudi Arabia. One thing that surprises some Westerners is that university classes are gender segregated. Some universities have one campus with separate classes for males and females, some universities are the same university and implement the same curriculum but have completely separate campuses, and some universities are only for one gender (for example, Princess Noura University in Riyadh is only for females.)
One of the universities I worked at, but will not mention the name of, was so strict that students were not allowed to take pictures at all. One way they implemented this rule was to ban students from using any phone that had a camera. Most Saudi women wear a hijab, a scarf that covers the hair. Some women also wear the niqab, a piece of fabric that covers the entire face except for the eyes. Since they are in an all female setting in their classes, they remove their hijabs and niqabs. This is the main reason for the lack of photos.
Something I found weird about universities here is that they are surrounded by giant cement walls. It honestly felt weird to me at first, until my husband told me about a conversation he had with his cousin that is studying in the states. His cousin told him that he felt weird going to a university that wasn’t surrounded by giant walls- it felt too open to him. The thought that anyone, student or not, could just walk on a college campus made him very uncomfortable. It’s interesting to see a different perspective on what a university should look like.
Even though the university is gated and shut off from anyone that isn’t a student, faculty, or staff, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of nature and outdoors. Most universities have at least a small garden for students to enjoy.
The outdoor gardens are nice, but it can lead to a bit of a problems- cats. Sometimes cats can make their way into a campus, but due to the giant fences, they have a hard time getting out. They end up living within the campus. It isn’t uncommon to see cats inside the campus. Sometimes you see dogs, too, but it’s very scary to see them. They aren’t very friendly and sometimes they carry rabies.
I don’t have a lot of photos from inside the classrooms, unfortunately. I guess it isn’t a big deal because they just look like a normal classroom. I will say that most times the male facilities and classrooms are far nicer than the females. Part of this is because female education is still relatively new here compared to other countries. I like to give credit where credit is due, however, so I will say that many universities are working hard to ensure both campuses are the same quality. One of the universities I worked for just opened a new campus for the female students.
Something I did find odd is that there isn’t a “dead week” or break for students to study for final exams. Because of this, many students will come to the campus but skip classes towards the end of the semester in order to study for finals.
There aren’t as many clubs or things to serve as creative outlets for students as we have in the west. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to see students displaying their talents in other ways. Sometimes art projects and presentations just pop up randomly. I might not understand a lot of what is said, but I always stop to appreciate it. I also love when my students give presentations and speeches and invite me. I don’t always understand what they say, but I like to go to support them.
The end of the semester can be very boring for the faculty. Some days we only have exam invigilation, but some days there is no exam and, therefore, no students. Despite having nothing to do, we are required to be in our offices, just in case a student comes with questions. We use this time to socialize with our coworkers more. Usually we arrange potluck style lunches. It’s great because you see so many different cultures represented here, so there is a lot of delicious food from all around the globe.
Because there are so many cultures represented here, our coworkers get to share their culture with us. When there are no students, it’s not uncommon to see your coworkers chatting, playing games, and giving each other henna. We really have some amazing henna artists here, too.
All in all, universities in Saudi Arabia are just like universities everywhere else, just with higher walls surrounding the campus.