Expecting 50 Saudi Students, a Small Campus Sees Opportunities for Service and Diversity

August 02, 2011

By certain measures, Robert Morris University is a model of homogeny. The Pittsburgh institution's faculty is 88 percent white; its students, 74 percent. Ninety-six percent of the students, faculty, and staff hail from the local area, few of them speak a language other than English, and some have never even left the Steel City or its surroundings.

But a tiny cohort of students on the small campus, a little more than 3 percent of its enrollment, come from more than 40 countries. They are a group the college sometimes struggles to integrate into campus life, says Lisa Nutt, associate director of Robert Morris's Center for Global Engagement. So when the university joined the list of colleges authorized to enroll students from Saudi Arabia's cultural-exchange program, raising the number of Saudi students expected on campus this fall to nearly 50 (it had none just two years ago), Ms. Nutt saw potential challenges.

"We have this arguably robust international student population, but we certainly don't recognize it," she says. "And I argue we don't value it."

For her, the answer has always been a clash of cultures. With that in mind, her center organized a service project designed to bring the campus's new Saudi students into contact with as diverse a set of classmates as she can drum up. Among them are members of Robert Morris's Black Male Excellence Network, its Hillel chapter, the Coalition for Christian Outreach, the Hispanic Student Association, and Carpe Mundum, a group that supports international students. Students involved in the project will work in Coraopolis, a distressed Pittsburgh community near Robert Morris, on activities like outfitting a building to operate as a food pantry and clothing bank, setting up a community garden, and serving a Thanksgiving dinner.

"We want to harness the richness of that international group," Ms. Nutt says. "Education is about opening up our worlds and opening up our minds. If we're not experiencing these differences, then confusion about who the other group is will persist, and it can lead to fear, hate, and all kinds of negative things that are contrary to what education is meant for."

On Wednesday, Ms. Nutt will represent the program at a conference in Washington, a part of the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, that will link her with representatives from 194 other colleges also using service work to combine cultures. The day of workshops, panels, and speakers is meant to allow college officials to share best practices.

While Robert Morris arranged the service project partly with the president's challenge in mind, Ms. Nutt's sights are focused squarely on what it can accomplish at her campus. She hopes that it will expose Robert Morris's domestic students more directly to different kinds of thought and backgrounds, and help acclimate international students to facets of campus life that may be foreign to them.

For instance, the college's community-service requirement is a concept that may have different meanings for students from other countries. "Most students will be familiar with assisting poor families, or with disabilities," she says. "But when you talk about people with physical or mental disabilities, in the U.S., those people are not the object of charity, they live and they work on their own."

"I think what we find when we experience people who at first seem so different than us is that we have more in common than we do not," she adds. "But we have to engage one another in order to discover that."