Mohammed Alharbi

Mohammed Alharbi

PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, first year studen
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff

How did you happen to come to Andrews University?
It’s a long story. I’m from Saudi Arabia. I finished a Master’s degree in 2013. The same year my wife got a government scholarship, and we thought this is a good chance for her and for me to get a new degree. So she is doing a Master’s in Special Education at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Mich. Before that we were studying English for a year in Grand Rapids, at Grand Valley (State) University. When she got admitted to Ferris State I started looking for any program in this area that had a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, and the nearest place was Andrews University. Before I came here I knew nothing about Andrews University. I started in the summer and now I’ve had a month of fall semester.

Did you look online to find a program that matched your needs?
Students with scholarships from Saudi Arabia access a website from the government’s Ministry of Education, and that tells us which universities have the degree which we need.

When you finish your degree will you return to Saudi Arabia and teach?
My job, previously, was mathematics teacher. I taught grades seven to nine for seven years. So I will go back to my job.

Would you then be a curriculum designer?
That might be. But for now, it’s just get the degree, go back, and we will see.

Was all your previous schooling in Saudi Arabia?

Tell me about the process of learning English. Had you started with English in Saudi Arabia?
Not intensive English. I had English classes in middle school and high school, like any other student, but that is not something where you really learn English. Kind of like Americans when they casually study Spanish (laughs). So I studied English at Grand Valley (State) University for one year, through the company ELS. I’m also taking a English Grammar class here, and Speaking and Listening, along with my Curriculum and Instruction courses.

How has it been adapting to school in this new environment?
I’m taking Philosophical Foundations for Professionals, from Professor John Matthews. It’s a really interesting class. It has given me an idea about Christianity and how Christians think. The professor will usually take time after the class to answer any questions I may have. Plus he lived in a Muslim community in Pakistan, for maybe about six years, so he understands me. So having this class in my first full semester has been very helpful. In our country we are all Muslims. We know nothing about Christianity. You have to know how other people are thinking, and they need to know how you are thinking so that you can both be respectful of each other. Since I’m going to Andrews University I have to know something about Christianity.

So you could be here three or four years working on your degree?
Yes. But my family is here with me. In addition to my wife, my children are here, going to the public school system in Kalamazoo, where we are living. There is a big Muslim community in Kalamazoo, including many Saudis, and we can live as neighbors. My daughter is in third grade. It’s a good experience for her, living here. Our son started preschool this fall, and he’s excited to be going to school every day, riding the bus.

And their English is good?
Not bad. My daughter had a lot of practice with second grade, and you know children: they have flexible minds.

Have you observed any interesting differences in elementary education here, as compared to Saudi Arabia?
As a teacher myself, I have paid attention to that. There are many. I see with my daughter that there is a lot of focus on reading in second and third grade. She is starting to write now, as in “read, and write a summary of what you read.” It’s interesting to me that American students, at that level, don’t carry books to school.  At least at my daughter’s school, the students at that level just have folders at school with papers the teacher gives them. In Saudi Arabia, students at the first and second grade level might carry three or four books to school. Their bag might be heavier than mine.

What about homework?
My daughter just had reading homework last year; this year reading and writing, just 30 minutes or so, maybe an hour sometimes. But in my country students at that level have math homework, science homework, reading homework. Quite a bit more homework. And in Saudi Arabia each subject has a different teacher. Here it’s the same teacher, except for maybe sports or music.

Do boys and girls go to different schools?
Yes. From first grade all the way through university.

Are there some advantages to separate schools, as well as disadvantages?
It depends on the background and the religious purpose, the nature of the community. We are very sensitive about the relationship between men and women. It’s very different here in the United States.

So are there separate universities for women?
The same university has two parts, one for men and one for women.

Do men teach the men and women the women?
It’s usually like that, but if a man needs to teach a class of women, because there is not a woman teacher available for that class, it’s not face to face. There is a camera on the teacher, in his room, and in the room with the students, there is a microphone so students can ask questions, but no camera.

What are some things that the average American should know about Muslims?
We are human. We are not terrorists. We have a sense of humor, the Saudi people, but we don’t have a media system to show the rest of the world our culture, as the Americans do. This is both positive and negative. When I came to the United States for the first time, my mother told me, “You will see, American people carry guns around in the streets. Be careful.” Because that’s what we see in American movies. Through movies, we might get the idea that all Americans are rich people, but when we get here we see that there are a lot of homeless people. It would be the same if you came to Saudi Arabia. It would be different from what you see on television. Things that I grew up with seem normal to me, but if you come from a place that did things differently, you would ask me why do you do it that way?

Are you supposed to be praying five times a day?

How does that work if you’re in class?
There are five pillars to being a Muslim. 1. Believe there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger. 2. Praying five times a day. The first time is around 6:30 to 7 a.m. The second is around 1:30 to 2 p.m., depending on the sun’s position. The third is 4 to 5 p.m. Then, before sunset. And before midnight. So I usually have four of my prayers on campus during school days, three days a week. I may pray at the library, or in an empty classroom—I prayed right before I came for this interview. The time for prayer is not absolutely rigid. For instance, I can finish the class and pray. But I must do it. I carry a piece of cloth to kneel on.

You look like you’re wearing typical American clothes, jeans and a buttoned shirt. What would you be wearing in Saudi Arabia?
If you work for the government you wear the traditional Saudi clothes, but if you don’t you may have a choice. As a teacher, I wore “casual” Saudi clothes. The students and teachers wear a “thobe” (an ankle length robe) and a “shemagh” (head scarf). Covering the head is not just in Saudi Arabia, but in all the Middle East countries. If we go back in history, people in that region were nomads traveling in a dry area, and they cover their face to protect it from sand and sun.

How do you feel wearing Western clothes?
They are very tight. The thobe is very comfortable, and we wear it with sandals.

So you have lived one or two winters in Michigan?
Two. I arrived during the winter. The coming winter will be my third. I heard about the snow before I came here. I knew there was something called “snow,” but I didn’t really know what it was like. The first day I thought the snow was interesting, but after one week, two weeks, I was ready for winter to be finished. I’m already wondering about what it will be like driving from Kalamazoo to here during the winter.

Have you been enjoying fresh Michigan fruit this summer?
I haven’t gone to pick any. I just buy it at WalMart. Very delicious, especially the apples. In Saudi Arabia we don’t grow fruit, so any fruit we have has to be imported, and the taste is changed. Here it’s very fresh.

What would you eat for a typical supper, at home in Saudi Arabia?
If you ask any Saudi, they will tell you “kabsa,” rice and meat, maybe chicken, with tomato sauce, onion. That’s the main dish. And maybe a soup or salad.


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