Stretching the Bonds of Education
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Larry D. Kauffman, except as credited..
Since the program's inception, plastics at Pennsylvania College of Technology has produced a sterling national reputation. The majors have earned coveted accreditation. A resource center has become one of America's leading training and research entities devoted to the moldable material. And countless graduates have thrived in vital slots at all levels of the growing industry.
Thanks to the next generation of plastics students, the college's name extends far beyond the U.S. border. A strong bond stretching from the main campus in Williamsport to the sun-drenched east coast of Saudi Arabia is generating global recognition for the plastics program that could yield everlasting benefits.
"It's been a great experience," said Timothy E. Weston, associate professor and department head for plastics and polymer technology. "I never dreamt of something like this 25 years ago when we began developing the plastics curriculum for the college."
Approximately 15 students from Saudi Arabia are enrolled in the plastics and polymer engineering technology bachelor-degree major. What began as individual efforts by the students to enhance their Saudi education has morphed into a formal relationship between Penn College and a school more than 6,600 miles away: Jubail Industrial College.
"This is my dream college," said Sami A. Al Anazi, one of the first JIC plastics students to enroll at Penn College. "I want to get the best education in the world."
Al Anazi, 27, and his fellow Saudi students earned their associate degrees in polymer engineering technology at JIC and wished to expand their education to become equipped in all phases of plastics development. The absence of a Penn College-comparable plastics engineering technology bachelor's degree in the Middle East prompted the students to travel from the Persian Gulf coast to the mountains of northcentral Pennsylvania.
"My associate degree is chemistry-based, and the Penn College degree is more processing and technology-based," said Fadhil A. Aljishi, 26, who was selected to represent his graduating class as student speaker at commencement. "Penn College is a place where you can learn, apply what you learned. It is where you get a degree that works."
That sentiment is shared by Aljishi's classmate, Mohmmed H. AlNasser, 28. "Studying in Penn College has been my best and utmost educational experience," he said. "I owe my current and future educational, life and career path success to Penn College."
The path to Penn College was far from a smooth one for AlNasser, Aljishi and Al Anazi, who all enrolled during the 2009-10 academic year and are considered among the "pioneers" of foreign plastics students. Upon completing the college's English as a Second Language program, they began the arduous task of transferring credits from JIC, so they could enter the plastics major as juniors in good standing.
"We honestly didn't know much about their degree from Jubail," said Weston. "We literally had them sit down and take one of our finals from our associate-degree major to see where they were."
"Those guys were like salmon swimming upstream to get their credits transferred," added Shanin L. Dougherty, international programs specialist. "It was quite an undertaking. They didn't get discouraged. All of their credits eventually transferred. With the articulation agreement, now their classmates will have it much easier."
The agreement, finalized last spring, formally recognizes students' credits from JIC's polymer engineering technology associate degree. After scoring a 520 or higher on the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam, the students now seamlessly transition to Penn College's bachelor-degree major in plastics.
All of the JIC students have earned scholarships to study plastics at the college through the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission. Initiated by Saudi ruler King Abdullah to make his country more self-sustaining in terms of talent and education, SACM pays for students to study in America in exchange for a commitment to return to Saudi Arabia and ply their expertise.
Since 1999, Penn College has maintained a relationship with Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, which has sponsored several Saudi students' education in the college's emergency medical services major. Dougherty theorizes a former Aramco student recommended the school to the Saudi cultural mission, which listed it as an "approved" institution for scholarship recipients. Internet research by JIC faculty and scholarship students like Aljishi, AlNasser and Al Anazi led to the discovery of the plastics major at Penn College.
"We have centers of excellence, strong faculty and an outstanding academic program," Weston said. "I think we've distinguished ourselves."
Penn College is one of only five plastics programs in the nation accredited by ABET's Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission, which recognizes excellence in applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology programs. The Plastics Innovation and Resource Center is a workforce development leader with hands-on workshops, seminars, and centers of excellence devoted to thermoforming and rotational molding. Graduates of the hands-on, intensive two- and four-year majors hold positions with prestigious companies such as SABIC Innovative Plastics, DuPont, Tyco, General Motors and Toyota.
"I love the way the program is designed," said Aljishi before graduating in December. "We apply almost everything we study. The friendly environment makes it a great time."
Al Anazi, also a December grad, appreciates the "supportive and friendly" nature of his classmates.
"I have made many very close friends, and it hurts me that I'm going to leave them soon," he said.
AlNasser, who graduates in May, cites faculty quality as one of the program's chief attributes. He praised their "devotion, passion and rapport" and said they go "way beyond" expectations.
Besides adjusting to a chillier climate (the average high temperature is above 74 degrees for 11 months of the year in Jubail, compared to just three months in Williamsport) and Western culture, the students said tackling a technical field in English has proven to be a challenge. But it's one that they have willingly embraced.
"I asked the first few Saudi students if they all wanted to be in the same lab together so it would be easier for them to communicate," recalled Weston. "Without hesitation, they said, 'No. We want to get out with Americans and have the American experience.' That really impressed me."
"English is the first language in the world, and to get the language, I should speak it as much as I can," explained Al Anazi, who had his wife and three daughters with him during his time at Penn College.
According to Aljishi, future job prospects are dependent on mastery of English. "If you want to have a very good job in my country, you have to have very good English," he said.
Dougherty, who continually interacts with the college's 72 international students, is impressed with how well the Saudi students, in particular, have acclimated to life in America.
"It's a huge adjustment to come from Saudi Arabia to a Western culture," she said. "They seamlessly adjusted to a culture that is quite different from their own."
The students believe it's important to explore that culture beyond the picturesque Penn College campus. Collectively, Aljishi, Al Anazi and AlNasser have visited about a dozen states, from Florida to Illinois. At times, their travels brought them a taste of home. Trips to New York City resulted in the acquisition of Halal food, meat that's prepared according to Muslim law.
The culture exchange prompted by the Saudis' presence on campus also has benefited the American students in the plastics program.
"In the past 20 years, we have moved to a global economy, and it's important for our students to have a global perspective," said Weston. "Having our students be with the Saudis and friends with them is a big plus. A lot of our students come from rural Pennsylvania and, honestly, haven't been exposed to a lot of cultural diversity."
Making a good impression on those American students has been very important for the Saudis.
Representing the group, AlNasser said: "One had to develop the appropriate behavior and passion to compete with native English speakers and go beyond their educational achievements to be among the honor students of Penn College. That is the utmost challenge, as we Saudi students are perceived as representatives of our educated community."
According to Dougherty, they have met that challenge. "They come here as top achievers and stay top achievers," she said. "I think they are a good example for other students in the class."
In addition to serving as student speaker during the December commencement ceremony, Aljishi received the President's Award, given to a graduate each semester for leadership and service to the college.
"They have done really well. They are genuinely good people," said Weston, who envisions a steady stream of Saudi students for the foreseeable future. "They have worked really hard. In the future, all the students who come from JIC will hear about Fadhil, Sami and Mohmmed."
And more students in Saudi Arabia will hear of Penn College as students return home to work and succeed in the plastics industry. Aljishi, Al Anazi and AlNasser all indicated that they have Saudi friends who hope to follow their path.
"I can't wait to see where some of these students end up 10 or 15 years from now," Weston said. "I suspect they will become real industry leaders when they are in their 30s and 40s."
Thanks to their time half a world away at Penn College.