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Saudi student's election stirs interest back home

By Nancy Van Valkenburg

Standard-Examiner

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 3:25 p.m. MDT

OGDEN, Utah — When Zaynab Alshakhiss won her bid for the Weber State University student Senate, it didn't draw much attention in Ogden, but when the news hit in Alshakhiss' native Saudi Arabia, the media mobilized.

Over spring break, more than a dozen print and online newspapers approached Weber State representatives and Alshakhiss for the story of her groundbreaking win as the international student senator for the 2012-13 year.

Alshakhiss is, after all, a woman elected to represent not only female Saudi students at Weber State, but also male Saudi students. She will also represent non-Saudi international students.

Weber State has more than 500 international students.

"It makes it a big deal because I'm a girl," said Alshakhiss, a 22-year-old computer science major.

"It's unusual. Most of the time, leadership positions where I am from are for males. It makes it kind of a big thing. Most of the newspapers were actually supportive. They were so excited for the news."

Hamad Al Yami, a former WSU student senator who now works at the WSU International Student and Scholar Center, alerted at least some of the media.

"Everybody was so excited about the achievement of a Saudi woman getting in a leadership position," he said. "It means a lot for the Saudi women to see a Saudi woman involved with making decisions and representing all the international students at Weber State.

"She is one of about 70,000 Saudi students in the United States, and there are no other Saudi women in her position. There are a few Saudi women who do lead groups of only Saudi students."

Alshakhiss said it was Al Yami who helped her see her leadership potential.

"We had been working together to organize students in a club," Alshakhiss said of her friend. "He just suggested, 'What do you think (of running) for Senate? If you want to do it, I'm going to support you.' "

The idea didn't immediately appeal to her.

"First of all, I was afraid," Alshakhiss said. "It was going to be the first time in my life I would run for a position like this. It would be a big responsibility.

"But Hamad tells me, 'Don't even worry. I will help you as much as you need me, and others will help you.' I decided to like the idea and said I would go for it."

Al Yami said helping Saudi women achieve their leadership potential is one of his goals.

"Zaynab has shown leadership through the Saudi Club at Weber State," he said. "Why shouldn't she run for this position in student government?"

Alshakhiss said her senatorial goal is to improve life for all WSU international students.

"I would like to accomplish whatever would make their life here easier and better," she said. "Any issues they face, I would like to handle it and do whatever I can to help them, to take some action to solve problems."

In Saudi Arabia, it is not the cultural norm for men and women to exchange ideas freely, Alshakhiss said.

Because she has been living in Utah since 2008, she'll feel comfortable talking to constituents of both genders, Alshakhiss said.

She said she chose to attend Weber State because family members live in the area.

Al Yami said another strong female leader in Saudi Arabia has Utah ties.

In 2009, Norah Al-Fayez became the first woman ever named to a ministerial post in her native Saudi Arabia when she became the deputy education minister for women's education.

Al-Fayez earned her master's degree in education from Utah State University in 1982.

Alshakhiss hopes her election will inspire at least some of the girls and women back home who see her story in the newspapers.

"I think it will," she said. "Why not?"

After graduation next year, and maybe an American job to gain some experience, she would like to move back to her home country, Alshakhiss said.

Would she like to be a leader again, back in Saudi Arabia?

"I would like to for sure."

Information from: Standard-Examiner, http://www.standard.net

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