The first time Hashim Akeel saw Cheney, he was struck by how small it was.
It was 2015 and Akeel, from Saudi Arabia, drove over from the West Side to drop off his Saudi friend, who had received a scholarship from his nation’s government to attend Eastern Washington University.
“I’m going to be frankly honest. I thought it was going to be a depressing city,” said Akeel, who transferred to EWU last year. “But I just got really comfortable.”
Akeel, now a 22-year-old senior psychology major, is one of 411 Saudi students who attend EWU. As a result, Eastern ranks as one of the nation’s top recipients of money from a Saudi government fund that helps students like Akeel study abroad.
“I’m really happy to be graduating from here,” Akeel said. Cheney “doesn’t have many distractions. You can focus on your studies and your friends are, like, four minutes away no matter where you are … even if the train is passing by.”
Even though Saudi students only make up about 3 percent of the student body, the Saudi-funded grants pump about $9.8 million annually into the university coffers. That constitutes between 12 and 13 percent of Eastern Washington’s overall tuition revenue, said university spokesman Dave Meany.
But the evolving narrative about how the Saudi government has responded to the Oct. 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has caused activists and some politicians to call for the U.S. and its industries to end ties with the nation.
President Donald Trump at one point called it “one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups.” But he has not taken any action that might threaten the immigration status of thousands of Saudi students attending college in the U.S.
However, officials at some of the universities – like Eastern Washington – that receive vast sums of tuition money from Saudi Arabia have begun reconsidering their arrangements.
Two weeks ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it will undertake a “swift, thorough reassessment” of the institute’s partnership with Saudi Arabia, calling Khashoggi’s killing “a grave concern.”
Babson College, located near Boston, which has received $2.5 million through a contract with the SABIC chemical company headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, told the Associated Press they are “monitoring events closely and gathering input from our community regarding potential paths forward.”
Despite the outcry, EWU President Mary Cullinan said in a statement that her university has not considered altering its agreement to accept Saudi students and the more than $24,000 they pay each year for tuition.
“Our Saudi students contribute to the diversity and the academic talent of our university,” Cullinan said. “Losing those students would not only be a financial loss but also a cultural and academic loss for our campus.”
According to an analysis by the Associated Press, Eastern Washington ranks first in the state of Washington and sixth in the nation for the most funds received from Saudi Arabia. George Washington University in Washington, D.C., receives the most, and the University of Washington, which also has many Saudi students, ranked ninth nationally.
Akeel, who initially attended Bellevue College before transferring to Eastern, said the Saudi government pays for what’s called the Saudi Arabia Cultural Mission, a fund that pays for students who meet certain criteria and attain high enough grades to travel to the U.S. to attend universities that have established relationships.
Akeel’s father was able to travel and study in San Francisco in the 1980s.
“He had a wonderful experience. He insisted since I was young that I study abroad,” Akeel said. “It really encourages more responsibility. It kind of builds a different mindset.”
While most of the Saudi students go to the United States, some also attend universities in Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan and China, depending on the fields of study.
“We mostly choose the U.S. because of a variety of different fields,” Akeel said. “We can say you are the jack of all trades and master of some.”
While he initially studied marketing, Akeel switched majors, with the encouragement of his mother, to study psychology. He wants to eventually attain his Ph.D. with an emphasis in marriage counseling.
Akeel said neither he nor any students at Eastern seem to be worried that the politics surrounding the Khashoggi investigation will impact their status.
“The political relationship between the Saudis and U.S. goes way back,” Akeel said. “We’ve been assured that everything will be fine.”
He also pointed out that regardless of any international issues between the governments, he’s experienced nothing but cordial relations with locals.
Cheney residents “are very welcoming and they are very warm people,” Akeel said. “I have a lot of gratitude for the people in Washington. I have nothing but nice things to say about the population.”
Coming to Cheney
Robert Sauders is an associate dean who leads the School of Global Learning. He heads up the programs to make sure that international students get what they need.
He said the Saudi students make up the vast majority of the 502 international students at Eastern.
“EWU has had a substantial Saudi population for a number of years,” Sauders said. “Nobody has been discussing target numbers or anything like that. The conversations I have been part of is finding students who would be well served at Eastern and trying to create a diverse student body.”
Between 2013 and 2016, the number of Saudi students fluctuated between 200 and the low 300s, but increased two years ago when EWU started recruiting more heavily at community colleges on the West Side.
“Once you have a pipeline and a reputation established, you find you start getting more students from that area,” he said.
Eastern requires Saudi students to meet a minimum grade-point level and have sufficient English skills to participate. For those who are academically qualified but can’t yet speak English fluently, the college has the English Language Institute, which allows the Saudi students to learn English without earning credits.
“There are very clear federal guidelines regarding immigration,” Sauders said. “We have an entire office that makes sure they are complying with those regulations.”
Many of the Saudi students live off campus and also bring their families to live with them as they attend school, he said.
Cheney “is not a large city, which sometimes is a little concerning to students and their children,” Sauders said. “But Cheney is seen as relatively safe for students. Safety is always a big issue … and a welcoming environment are important factors in students and their families when making decisions about where to attend.”
As for the political concerns caused by the Khashoggi killing, Sauders said he has not heard much concern out of the Saudi students.
“We had similar conversations with our (26) Chinese students based on statements from officials in the U.S. about their abilities to get visas,” he said. “We are always concerned about how international political disagreements may impact the student’s abilities to complete their studies.”
Many American students either don’t have passports or haven’t extensively traveled to other countries, Sauders said.
“One of the ways we can help connect the world … is to internationalize the campus,” he said. “International students, regardless of where they come from, really add to the overall campus environment in a positive way. It just makes a more rich and diverse place to learn.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.