Mohammed Sami A Kattoa played a video during a recognition ceremony on Wednesday, May 18.
Kattoa was one of 11 students that participated in this year’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Gifted Student Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The video he played was an inside look into what the students did this year.
Pictures scrolled across the screen prompting chuckles and smiles from those in attendance, but it did something else to the students who were featured in the photos.
Those 11 students smiled a little bigger, laughed a little louder and some even teared up a bit when they saw the video because the photos on the screen revealed the moments when 11 strangers became a family.
Laying the Foundation
The KAUST Gifted Student Program is a yearlong partnership between Global Education and Training (GET) and KAUST for high school graduates from Saudi Arabia.
The program helps students prepare for undergraduate majors in STEM fields and develop competitive college applications. The intensive training improves their English skills, helps them achieve higher scores on the TOEFL and SAT exams, and supports their readiness for U.S. academic studies.
The May 18 ceremony wrapped up the fifth year that the KAUST program has been hosted by GET at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
It recognized the success that Renad Emad A Abulfaraj; Hassan Mohammed H Al Lail; Fatimah Anwar A Al Nasfan; Omar Hashem M Alahdal; Fares Ibrahim A Alghamdi; Jood Osama A Ali; Hitaf Mousa A Alsaffar; Basil Faisal M Habiballah; Mohammed Sami A Kattoa; Fares Ibraheem F Pasuni; and Mohammad Abdulhalim M Qoqandieach achieved.
It also celebrated their acceptance into several universities across the nation.
However, a day earlier on May 17, before walking up to receive their award and lining up for photos, those 11 students and the program’s coordinator sat down for an interview.
They talked about what they learned, they talked about their future, and they talked about why they would never forget their year in Champaign.
What They Learned
Anna Kasten, the program’s coordinator, said the 11 students that she helped advise during the year have come a long way from when they first landed in Champaign to now.
"These guys sometimes bring tears to my eyes and they can be very philosophical," she said.
Kasten said the KAUST scholarship program isn't something that just anyone does, she said there’s a reason everyone sitting in the room was chosen for the program.
Eleven students grew and matured alongside one another in just one year, and after listening to the maturity and the wisdom from a group of young adults, everything Kasten said held true, and one thing was certain—those students belonged in this program.
Hassan Mohammed H Al Lail said one of the important things they learned aside from educational aspects, was how to mentally and emotionally handle the little things.
He said he learned how to improve personal motivation, he learned how to continuously manage a healthy lifestyle, and he learned how to cope with personal issues that may not have been huge, but still mattered to him.
He said he wasn’t alone, and they overcame those things by finding outlets like going to gym for example.
“Most of the skills you develop and the things you learn (through the program) are personal skills, that’s the whole point of the foundation year,” Al Lail said. “It’s to get you used to living on your own and doing your own things and being independent as a human being before transitioning into a fully functional college student.”
In addition to these educational aspects that Al Lail mentioned, the foundation year was also an opportunity for each student to discover themselves.
For example, Hitaf Mousa A Alsaffar said one take away they had from the program was learning how to find themselves in this hectic life.
“Life is full of opportunities and full of different people, and being in this program, although we might have similar goals that doesn’t mean that we should be the exact same copies of each other,” Alsaffar said. “We can be our true selves and we can do things differently…we don’t have to be as good at everything as other people.”
Omar Hashem M Alahdal agreed and said ultimately, they embraced the fact that everyone is unique in their own way.
He also said they learned that life is only great if they make it great.
Life is hard and filled with sadness and anger, but Alahdal said that by laughing, smiling and joking through it, life becomes so much easier to enjoy.
“It’s going to be a hard life for the next four or five years, but just stay happy and whatever you need to achieve, it’s going to happen eventually,” Alahdal said.
Jood Osama A Ali said the biggest life skill they acquired was communication, which she is important to solving any conflict.
“You don’t assume that people will understand you or understand what’s the most important thing to you or what annoys you, so communication plays a very important tool for you to deal with people and to learn from them,” she said.
In the end, however, Kattoa summed it up best.
“I feel like the foundation year gave me the opportunity to fail so I don’t next year,” he said. “Next year I will know what I did wrong so I can do better.”
How They Changed
The learning experiences that each student had over the course of the school year left a positive mark on their lives, even if some of those experiences weren’t always great.
For example, Fares Ibrahim A Alghamdi said when he first started the program, he had this overwhelming sense of freedom.
There were no parents or no nagging guidance, it was just him and he said that felt amazing, for a few weeks.
He said it didn’t take long for the homesickness to set in and it didn’t take long for him to realize that he needed to figure out how to control his newfound sense of freedom.
That's when he said he realized how much he needed that guidance but because his parents weren’t there, he learned how to control his life.
In the end, Alghamdi said the foundation year had a positive impact because of every experience he had.
Even if it was a negative experience like low grades or missing his parents, he said those experiences mattered because they taught him something like holding himself accountable.
“Having the full freedom of doing everything ended up teaching me how to control myself again,” Alghamdi said.
Yet, although proven to be viable to their year on campus, those learning experiences weren’t the only thing that students encountered.
Even their feelings that each student lived through from the moment they walked on campus to the moment they received their awards at the reception helped teach them something.
For example, Kattoa said in the beginning he was so happy that he got the scholarship.
But there were a lot of things he didn’t think about before embarking on the adventure.
He said in the beginning he was in sort of a honeymoon phase.
“We were excited because we were in the U.S. we were studying but at the end of the first semester you realized that you’re away from home and you feel a bit of homesickness,” he said. “Then you start to miss everything, not just the people but even the culture. Like not being around people able to speak my language. All of these things make me feel like I’m living a life and saying, ‘Everything is OK.’”
However, Kattoa said the year felt like a roller coaster—in the beginning they were up, they went down for a brief amount of time, then they were back up again and ready to take on the world and finish strong.
“Now, let’s do our best to finish,” he said.
What They’ll Do Next
Al Lail said he still remembers, vividly, the first day he came to the university.
“I remember getting the keys and opening the room for the first time,” he said. “I remember having my high school friend who is an undergrad here bring chicken quesadillas because I hadn’t eaten anything, and I also remember being too hot and turning the A/C down not knowing how to manage Fahrenheit.”
That first night, Al Lail slept without a blanket because he didn’t have one, inside a room that was 50 degrees too cold.
“Being in a new place and in an unusual environment is drastically different than when you eventually become used to it,” Al Lail said. “You get used to the place and you’re comfortable here and now I have to leave here.”
Al Lail and his peers said that although they’re sad to leave, being able to learn how to move and how to get used to a new place quickly is going to help them as they transition into a new school year.
He said it’ll be a lot easier for them to move on because it won’t be a new thing, like it was when they first game to the states.
“We gained those skills from this,” he said.
Basil Faisal M Habiballah said when he first came it was exciting, but then he realized that it’s not going to happen anymore.
But he said that’s OK because now, they’re ready to move on.
“Being here opened up opportunities I didn’t have before,” Habiballah said. “That was a good part of it, the program did a good job getting us into this place.”
When asked if they were like a family, the group smiled and shrugged and said, “of course.”
They had lived next to each other and grown alongside one another for a year, and developed a strong bond.
So, when asked if they’re going to stay in touch, Renad Emad A Abulfaraj said, without missing a beat, that they have to.
“I mean they have to, it’s mandatory,” she said as others laughed. “We’ve been through a lot together and we’ve come to know each other. I feel like if some of them just decided to cut the connection or not be in touch that’ll be mean.”
In the fall, the students will begin their undergrad journey at different universities. While some are going to the same university, others will find themselves elsewhere.
But the one thing that will continue to connect them all will be the year they spent in Champaign-Urbana.