At first glance, the Facebook photo doesn’t look like a USC alumni gathering: No cardinal and gold in sight, not a single Tommy Trojan to be found.
But, on closer inspection, it’s apparent that half of the smiling men are flashing the Trojan “victory” sign.
“At USC, you quickly develop a sense of pride being a top university,” said Bahjat Zayed, the past president of the 120-member USC Alumni Club of Arabia, one of the university’s fastest growing graduate groups.
The club is one sign of the rapid rise of Saudi Arabians studying in the United States. Those numbers fell dramatically after the Sept. 11 attacks; the number of Saudi students dropped by almost a quarter in 2002 and continued to fall for the next two years.
But the numbers have grown steadily since 2005 and doubled from the 2010 to 2012 academic years, according to a recent survey. The number of Saudi students in the U.S. last year grew to 44,566 — a nearly 30% increase from 2011.
The country ranked behind only China, India and South Korea in the number of students studying in U.S. colleges and universities.
Experts say the change is largely fueled by a new Saudi Arabian scholarship program that encourages students to study abroad. Other countries have adopted similar programs. Of the four nations that made the biggest percentage gains in the recent survey, Kuwait and Brazil also offered government-sponsored scholarship programs.
“Countries that are trying to leap from their population into a 21st century economy need to do that very rapidly and they don’t have the capacity in their own universities,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of the Institute of International Education, which conducted the recent survey in partnership with the U.S. State Department.
When King Abdullah assumed the Saudi Arabian crown in 2005, he began to emphasize science education and foreign travel as a way to modernize the country. The scholarship program offers qualified students free tuition, travel funding and expenses, according to media reports and students, and has made it possible for middle-class students to go abroad.
Traditionally, only children from wealthy Saudi families moved out of the country for college. Osama bin Laden’s father, a billionaire construction magnate, sent more than a quarter of his 54 children to study in America and other foreign countries, according to “The Bin Ladens,” a history of the family.
The government requires females to be accompanied by a male relative, although many students say that compliance is not strictly enforced.
Officials with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Ministry, which oversees the scholarship program in the United States, did not return calls for comment.
Several Saudi students studying in the U.S. said it would have been difficult for them to do so without the financial assistance.
Public U.S. colleges prize foreign students, especially during tough economic times, because they pay more in tuition than American citizens.
Reem Alattas grew up in western Saudi Arabia and enjoyed studying cognitive science, which examines brain processes, but knew that no colleges in Saudi Arabia offered programs in it.
The daughter of an aviation engineer, Alattas thought it would be difficult for her family to afford to send her overseas to study and she assumed she would stay in Saudi Arabia.
But she heard of other students who had received financial aid to study abroad. Her parents, who had studied in the United States during college, encouraged her to apply.
She received a scholarship but did not apply to U.S. schools right away. Like many of her classmates, Alattas went to a college prep program at Virginia Tech for a year after high school. She lived in an apartment with other Saudi students while improving her English and also took the SAT and other college admissions tests.
Alattas decided to go to UC Berkeley, where she is now a sophomore and intends on majoring in cognitive science. “I like that it’s very diverse and multicultural and that people are not afraid to identify themselves,” Alattas said. “It’s a very intellectual place.”
One of Alattas’ Virginia Tech classmates, Noura Islam, chose UC Irvine for its engineering program and because “I’m a beach person,” she said.
The number of Saudi students at Irvine has almost tripled since 2010, going from eight to 23 this year.
By comparison, there were 172 Saudi Arabians last fall at USC, almost five times more than in 2007.
Islam said the transition has been relatively seamless, although figuring out how to get around in Orange County has been difficult, especially since she doesn’t drive.
Women are not allowed to get behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia.
“Back at home, I’m used to getting a driver,” she said. “Here, you have to [do] everything on your own.”
Other Saudi students said they’ve had trouble getting used to some American traditions. For example, when Hala Alhashmi attended her first Penn State football game, “I didn’t understand anything,” she said. “American football’s not even a thing at home.”
Alhashmi didn’t attend a game over the next year but decided to start going again this fall. “I can’t deny that the atmosphere is amazing,” she said. “And I think it’s part of the Penn State experience to attend football games.”
Alhashmi still fasts for Muslim holidays but has also tried to learn as much as she can about America. She came to Penn State because she liked the finance program, but enjoyed her sociology and economics classes so much that she decided to double minor in them.
She plans to return to Saudi Arabia after she graduates, where she hopes she and other young adults will contribute to a more open, independent society.
“At home, there’s so much pressure for everyone to be the same,” Alhashmi said. “But here, you have to meet with so many different people. You have to learn to talk to them and listen and understand them.”