How One Saudi Student Built Friendships and Explored Career Options Through Global UGRAD

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Sawsan Jan (bottom left) with some of her Global UGRAD classmates.

Sawsan Jan had always wanted to study abroad in the United States. While studying architecture at Dar Al-Hekma University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she heard about a program that would allow her to study in the U.S. for a semester and knew she had to take advantage of the opportunity.

“It was very overwhelming to give something a chance,” she says of the application process.

However, taking that chance paid off as Jan was accepted into the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD), which brings outstanding students from around the world to the U.S. for one semester of study. Global UGRAD is a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State and is implemented by World Learning.

Jan spent the 2019 spring semester abroad at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, where she continued her architecture studies and got involved in student life on campus.

“I don’t remember feeling that it was real until the second week after starting,” she recalls.

Before arriving in the U.S., Jan and the other Global UGRAD participants began the Online Professional and Academic Learning (OPAL) course, which World Learning designed to help prepare them for life at American colleges and universities. Jan says the course helped her be more aware of issues — such as differing social norms and cross-cultural communication — that she would need to deal with while in the U.S.

“It gave me the idea of things to bear in mind and think about when it came to communication, to culture shock, or cultural exchange in general,” she says.

In addition to learning about life in another culture, Jan’s time at Keene State also gave her the opportunity to approach her major from a different perspective. While her program in Saudi Arabia often focuses on the theoretical aspects of architecture, Jan says her courses in the U.S. took more of an applied approach to the subject.

“In studio work at Keene State, it was very practical,” she says. “We actually met the client. We had to follow a specific program.”

“One of the best things were the connections we have built. I’m not just saying getting to know someone, but the emotional connection.”

Jan also volunteered with Keene State’s chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students, training other students in how to use different types of architecture software. A unique feature of Global UGRAD is the program’s requirement of its students to complete community service during their time abroad. Jan feels the experience helped deepen her engagement with her fellow students.

“It wasn’t just about leaving one’s comfort zone, but really getting yourself involved in the community and seeing different ways where it can really help,” Jan says.

Now a rising senior exploring her career options for after graduation, Jan credits the Global UGRAD Program with expanding her awareness of the options available to her, including pursuing advanced degrees.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the academic journey of being a scholar or researching or even becoming a professor,” she says. “The experience with UGRAD has definitely made me more conscious of it.”

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Sawsan Jan (second from left) with the Keene State cheerleading team.

While in the U.S., Jan also took time to pursue another one of her interests by joining the Keene State cheerleading team. A founding member of the first cheerleading team in Saudi Arabia, Jan wanted to connect with others who shared her passion for the sport and explore new ideas she could use with her team at Dar Al-Hekma. She learned about training regimens while practicing with the team and performed as part of the team during some of Keene State’s basketball games.

“It was a very rich experience,” she says. “There’s so many things that I’ve brought back with me.”

Jan says her favorite part of the Global UGRAD program was that it gave her the opportunity to develop meaningful friendships with a variety of new people. She enjoyed finding common ground with people she met, as well as learning about their diverse experiences and backgrounds.

“One of the best things were the connections we have built,” she says. “I’m not just saying getting to know someone, but the emotional connection.”

Jan stays in touch with the friends she made on the program through social media and video chat. She explains that while they may be geographically separated, they still share a strong bond.

“It really feels like I’ve left a great part of my heart with them and I’ve had a great part of their hearts come along with me,” Jan says.

She encourages other students to seek out and apply for programs like Global UGRAD that will give them opportunities to discover more about the world and themselves.

“The more we experience, the more we realize how little we have experienced and how there’s this great room to keep on exploring and knowing more,” Jan says.

World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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