Mary Altair & Andrew Stanek
Effects of Arabic Culture on Student, College and Community
Ms. Mary Altair, Instructor of Social Sciences and Andrew Stanek, Student, Erie Community College,
South Campus, Orchard Park, NY
This study seeks to explore the effect of Arab cultural expectations on the integration of Yemeni students from the Lackawanna, NY community into Erie Community College. Arab students may have differing experiences of the educational and social community setting from the typical community college student due to strong influence of culture and stereotyping on social interaction. With its traditionally diverse student population, the community college can be seen as a microcosm of the surrounding communities. Therefore it is conceivable that similar barriers to integration may exist in the educational setting as are found outside its borders. The possible barriers and supports effecting the education of the Arab student as well as the student’s suggestions for educational supports in the college setting are explored below. It has been discovered that the educational setting moderates the influence of cultural barriers in many cases. Understanding that the experience of Arab students is uniquely challenging, the community college may be able to implement simple accommodations to improve Arab student’s educational outcomes.
The aggregate of Arab cultures worldwide are found increasingly dispersed within the borders of western countries. According to the 2000 U.S. census Arabs constitute .42% of the total population in the United States. (U.S. Census Bureau) Significant populations of Arabs can be found living in U.S. cities such as Deerborn, MI; San Joaquin Valley, CA; and Lackawanna, NY. In particular, immigrants from Yemen tended to work as agricultural laborers in California farmland areas, automotive workers in Deerborn, MI, and steelworkers in Lackawanna, NY. These workers originally tended to be viewed as “Sojourners,” as they tended to make periodic journeys back to their home villages in Yemen, visiting wives and families rather than aim to establish permanent communities in the US. (Swanson, 1988, p. 61; and Sabagh & Bozorgmehr, 1988, p.143-4) This is no longer the case, as communities of Yemeni descent are now flourishing in these and other areas with family as the main organizational structure. First generation Yemeni youth are growing up surrounded by mainstream American cultural institutions.
Personal communications with a refugee service provider at Heritage of America Educational & Cultural Foundation provided some general impressions of the Yemeni group settling in CA. She provides immigration services in Irvine, CA and provides support services for Yemeni immigrants on a weekly basis. Her informal observations suggest that the Irvine, CA population is still proud of and closely tied to the strict practice of cultural and religious traditions. This includes females not being able to leave home without a male escort (fil beit fil beit), girls being removed from school at puberty by parents, and arranged marriages. In this community higher education does not seem to be a priority for females, and exceedingly few have college experience, which may not be true for other Yemeni groups or Arab groups in general.
Inherent barriers to integration with the surrounding communities exist for Yemeni immigrants in the areas of language and social interaction. This is especially true for women who are traditionally most active in the domestic sphere. Additional barriers also exist within American communities due to the negative perception of Islam and Arab groups in general. For example, there is a 95% chance that an Arab male or Muslim character in a film made in the U.S. is portrayed as greedy, violent, or dishonest. (Shaheen, 1998) This negative stereotype seems to be differentially applied to local Islamic Arabs, especially after the media coverage of both 9/11 and the discovery of the “Lackawanna 6” suspected sleeper cell.
This study seeks to explore the effect of membership in Arab culture on the integration of Yemeni students into Erie Community College, located in Orchard Park, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. Perhaps it is possible for Arab students to circumnavigate social barriers under certain conditions, if not escape them completely. The effects of integration into student communities on student outcomes such as retention rates have been explored by ECC through the use of “learning communities.” Information from Erie Community College Department of General Studies suggests that GS students who participated in a learning community in which enrollment in four core classes was shared had a slightly higher retention rate than General Studies students who were not involved in the learning community. This speaks to the inherent value of student connections and community as part of the learning experience.
As higher education is related to success and earning potential in the American labor force, it is important to explore the effects of cultural and religious barriers on student interactions and educational outcomes for ethnic and immigrant community students. There seems to be a lack of research in the area of Arab student performance at the college level. Research has been done on integration of female Yemeni high school students in the high school setting by Loukia K. Sarroub. She found that female students were able to create “imagined spaces” between home and school to explore identities.
This study, The Effects of Arab Culture on Students, College, and Community is focused on portraying both the male and female Yemeni student experience at the college level. The study seeks to explore the social norms, academic impressions, and career goals of these students enrolled at Erie Community College’s South Campus. Student’s perceptions of attitudes existing in the wider community toward Arabs, as well as suggested supports aimed at the improvement of their college experience were also explored. At the outset differences were expected between Arab male and female experiences due to restrictions resulting from cultural or religious practice, and possible negative interpersonal experiences resulting from racial profiling of Arabs.
Arab students participated in structured interviews during the Spring 2009 semester at ECC South Campus. Seven male and six female students were included in the study, which is approximately 25% of enrolled Arab students. The percentage of Arab students interviewed is estimated due to the fact that ECC only collects federally mandated information on student ethnicity and lacks specific data on Arab student enrollment.
All but one participant are of Yemeni descent and members of the Lackawanna community, the one exception being a female participant of Iraqi descent. Most attended the same public high school. All students reported practicing the Islamic religion and being bilingual with Arabic and English languages. Students’ areas of study are diverse, including dental lab technician program, communications, nursing, recreation, social sciences, liberal arts, and general studies.
A variety of both quantitative and qualitative questions were included in a short questionnaire preceding structured interviews with focus groups. The questionnaire explored family background, parent’s education level, and prior involvement in high school activities (see Attachment 1). Interviews were focused around questions relating to participants interaction with faculty and students, involvement with activities, social interactions, career expectations, and abilities to fulfill cultural and religious requirements in academic setting. Student’s perceptions of attitudes existing in the wider community toward Arabs, as well as suggestions for improvement of their college experience were also explored (See Attachment 2).
Thematic categories based on participants’ responses were created for the free response questions. There was a high degree of consistency in the responses provided for most areas explored, with the exception of gendered issues both in the areas of career goals and barriers to social interactions.
As social life contributes to the success of students, the inclusion of opportunities for socializing at school is a possible factor effecting student outcomes. One third of participants interviewed claimed they attend school for education only, with social interactions confined to existing friends and family relationships. There was a differential between male Arab students who report that they tend to socialize more and female Arab students who report socializing less due to cultural and religious restrictions between genders. Five out of seven males perceive more freedom to socialize both in and out of their Yemeni community, and admit doing so with non-Arab females and in traditionally discouraged settings. One of the males who did not socialize was newly married. Conversely, all females reported avoidance of interaction with both Arab and non-Arab males as a rule. They stated, however, that there are exceptions made in special cases where academics take precedence, for example when getting missed class notes or assignments. Females do socialize at school with other females, both from within the Yemeni community and non-Arab females, but are more so focused on schoolwork than their male counterparts. Females reported that in their community their social life revolves around family parties and community events, such as weddings and birthday parties.
Parent’s education levels and students educational expectations were also explored. All but one parent were supportive of their children’s education regardless of their own educational background. Half of participant’s parents were reported to have grade school education while the other half had at least some college. In all but the single Iraqi family, parents’ expectations of educational success for their children were predominant regardless of the level of the parent’s education.
When asked about educational and career goals all females reported that they intend to enter the workforce even after marriage, which is a change from female roles of the past. They suggested that this is due to economic conditions in the US as well as an acknowledgement that the female may find herself divorced in a highly competitive and expensive culture. All males reported that they expect to work as dominant wage earner of the family, regardless of the female’s supportive role. Male participants were split on their wife’s role: three of seven would support her working after marriage. In comparison, a study from the late 1980’s suggested that marital satisfaction for American husbands was unrelated to the wife’s employment in white collar families, while blue collar husbands who tended to hold more traditional sex role expectations were less satisfied with working wives, seeing it as a personal failure to provide for the family. (Hoffman, 1989) More male students would allow a wife’s continuing education, six of seven; acknowledging education and English language classes are a priority.
Arab students report encountering positive support from faculty for family and religious obligations. Use of facilities such as the library, computer labs, and Audrey Bard tutoring center was encouraged by faculty. Classroom experiences with faculty were mostly supportive and encouraging. In only one instance a student reported feeling “targeted” in class when repeatedly asked for cultural examples; as a result the class was dropped.
Group participation was reported as a positive classroom experience, especially in mixed sex groups where female students might otherwise find it unusual to communicate with others. Generally females are not allowed to communicate with males, yet in this group work, given the academic context, the female students said they were able to make contact with males and engage in meaningful exchanges of ideas.
Another specific cultural-religious restriction was raised, the taboo against contact with pigs, as pig dissection is common in many biology labs. All participants, with the exception of one female, reported that it would be possible, despite religious and cultural restrictions, to participate in such an assignment. This also is due to the high priority given to education. Students reported, however, preferring alternatives such as watching a lab partner do the dissection or being provided an alternate animal or assignment.
Perceptions of Arab students concerning the attitudes of non-Arab groups in the wider community toward Arabs were explored, as well as their expectation of the types of interactions that they may encounter. These were included in the study as background context for possible interactions with the existing student community. The most common perception that brought a sense of concern to the student’s environment was the negative stereotype of Arab and or Islamic people as “terrorist.” The local media was frequently sited as a reinforcing this stereotypical perception as mass media mostly tends to cover negative stories, even when not covered for other ethnic groups. One male focus group reported an incident at a high school soccer game where an individual in the crowd used racial slurs connected to negative stereotypes of the Arab and Islamic communities, thus causing a conflict that interrupted the game. Also, some females reported strange looks and a variety of questions directed toward head coverings.
Qualitative analysis suggested that while the students had little expectation of support coming from the outside community, strong internal relationships within the Yemeni community itself were the sources of support and connection. All students reported a willingness to educate and discuss the principle beliefs of Islam and Arab culture with genuinely interested querents on a more personal basis. Students also seemed reserved, yet hopeful that the results of this study might be used to effect some minor but necessary changes in the institution.
Arab students were asked what they thought should be included in a potential diversity training session on either Arab culture or the practice of Islam. Responses included that Arabs are diverse and modern with Islam granting equal rights for men and women. A consistent point of reference for students was that among Islamic people Arabs only account for 15% of practitioners. It suggests a disconnection in the minds of the students between their religious affiliation and with the aspects of terrorism and political unrest in the stereotypes usually applied to Arabs. It also stresses the inherent diversity of those students who follow the Islamic religion as compared to the adherents of Arab culture, which has its own internal ethnic diversity. For example many students come from areas where every village has its own dialect and customs, much like in the United States, where there are regional dialects and other ethnically inspired differences. Students also suggested that interpretations of Islam aren’t homogenous but vary by family tradition.
When asked about conflicts between cultural and religious expectations, for example in the area of women’s rights, students report cultural norms tend to supersede religious laws. Female students saw the restrictions placed on women as misinterpretations of the teachings, and stated that also Islam requires the practitioner to follow the laws of the state in which he or she lives. For instance, there was unanimous condemnation by the Islamic community of the atrocity committed by Muzzamil Hassan, a local business owner who beheaded his wife for the dishonor of procuring a order of protection that forced her violent husband out of her home. Blogger Phyllis Chesler, and others in the media, have suggested that beheadings and honor killings are an Islamic tradition. (Chesler, 2009) However, these practices are rooted in tribal custom and not religious tradition. In general, students abhorred the use of violence and claimed that this aberrant behavior was not in keeping with peaceful Islamic tradition.
A second theme students suggested was one of modernity. “Arabs don’t live in the stone age,” one participant of this study volunteered. The point was made that their countries of origin have modern technology and infrastructure in the cities and wealthier areas. While following observations of traditional Islam, American born Arab students at ECC are growing up with the same influences of popular culture as the rest of their classmates. In addition, traditions are changing due to the influence of the surrounding American culture, as is the norm for most if not all first generational immigrant community members, as in the case of Arab women in the workforce.
Students also stressed that Islam is a religion filled with balances in that it guarantees many rights for both sexes. For example women have the right to work or own businesses separate from their husbands, where as the husband is obligated to share wealth with his wife. Equal value placed on male and female contributions were important aspects of family life and religious observation among the students interviewed. Although traditionally division of labor is strict, the importance and influence of both wife and husband is valued in the family. This seems to be still the case even as the roles are being redefined by this new generation.
Students who participated in this study reported overall positive school experiences, however, they were excited to share ideas for possible improvements. The expansion of existing club offerings, such as starting a Multicultural or International Club, in order to provide a forum for speakers and debates without targeting the Arab students directly was supported by all but one student. Six students had participated in such a club at Lackawanna High School and most had attended its functions. Students who had previous participation with such a club reported positive experiences and those who had were inclined to participate again. Based on our students desire not to be targeted, and recognizing that education is key to breaking stereotypes, the expansion of course offerings was also discussed. They suggested the inclusion of an Arabic Language, Comparative Religion, or possibly a Cultural Diversity course.
Diversity training for faculty and possibly for students was also suggested. Although students in this study reported few negative experiences with faculty and fellow students, most felt that it could be beneficial in counteracting existing negative stereotypes and misperceptions between various groups on campus. Even faculty who are employed in positions in which contact with people of diverse age, racial, and ethnic background is expected tend to have misperceptions of certain groups. This necessitates periodic diversity training programs or in-service presentations to help them better facilitate classroom interactions, much like existing sexual harassment trainings are intended to do.
Ten out of the students interviewed suggested that it would be desirable to have prayer space at South campus, as there is at ECC’s City campus. Currently, students reported either using the library for prayer or making up the prayers at a later time. One student even reported that it was difficult for her to tell what direction she was facing.
The overriding theme in the interviews was education as a priority for all Yemenis, being that it is indispensible to survival in America. This is felt so strongly that well-established cultural norms, which would usually be strictly enforced, are taking on nuances previously unseen for this group. This may be especially true of the Lackawanna Yemeni community, yet other communities such as that in California are reported to be more traditional with regard to education and female roles. While families sometimes allow deviations from established norms of social conduct, community pressure does still exist to enforce norms outside of the educational realm. For example, one participant’s father was shunned by his community for allowing his daughter to divorce after her husband tried to prevent her from completing her education. The family re-located to Lackawanna as a result and the student is currently enrolled with plans to go on for a doctoral degree.
Participants stressed that economic conditions in the U.S. make education a high priority for all, and so it goes that many things are allowed in the name of education that would otherwise be discouraged. Communication between males and females in the classroom may be allowed if the proper context is observed, that the communication is directly related to the assignment at hand and not hidden in any way. Where two-income families are the norm, more Yemeni families are finding that both marriage partners have a role in breadwinning. In addition, female students reported a concern by parents for their daughter’s ability to support herself in the case of a divorce.
Even in an open educational setting, there still exist differences in cultural expectations for male and female students, which may effect the individual’s experience. Although there is a respect for social interaction for academic purposes, cultural restrictions for the female students still remain outside of the educational setting. The Yemeni female may find herself interacting with mainstream American society after earning a degree, but within the realm of the family, she is still bound by traditional cultural expectations. The educational experience may provide a training ground for this outside interaction, while home life continues to enforce traditional norms and boundaries. Today’s Yemeni woman needs to be able to move fluidly between these two sets of expectations. In light of these new circumstances, some modern couples might find it necessary to renegotiate marriages roles and expectations.
Although male and female relationships are often built on mutual respect, the role of the female is circumspect. An interesting insight into the changes occurring in the Arab student community concerns the desire of most students to find marriage partners with equal education, with the perception that this may relate to the success of the marriage. Male students suggested that the educational setting may be an important tool for cultural assimilation and socialization to the American way of life, especially for a wife born and raised in Yemen.
Another dominant theme throughout the interviews dealt with perceptions of Arabs both inside and outside of the school community and contrasts with the students’ own perceptions. It is interesting that the minority status of these students on a campus that is just recently beginning to see diversity in its ethnic makeup has not resulted in negative experiences for Arabs as were reported in the wider community.
Media influence, as molding factor for public perception and an instep for cross-cultural integration is seen by students as misguided. Targeting becomes a problem when racial profiling, fueled by misinformation, occurs for a culture not given a favorable voice in the mass media. Integration of media that portrays Arabs in a more realistic light both on campus and in the classroom may help redress this barrier to interaction.
It is important to note that this study was based on the experiences of a small number of participants, albeit a good sampling of the actual Yemeni community at Erie Community College South campus. This pilot study is more a starting point for further investigation into the cultural factors shaping the experiences of Yemeni students, which may or may not pertain to Arab students in general. In addition, the findings, specifically with regard to the high priority given by these students and their families to education and the more liberal enforcement of rules concerning interaction under educational circumstances, may not be generalizable to the larger Yemeni community, as the participants are currently enrolled community college students. This limitation could easily be addressed by conducting a survey of the local Yemeni community, which consists of just 5.8% of the total Lackawanna population, and roughly 200 households (US Census Bureau, 2000).
Analysis was confined to thematic categorizations, as the small sample (thirteen participants) and high degree of agreement in responses makes statistical analysis less reliable. With this being said, the study may still be valuable as a window into the educational experience of this Arab group in an increasingly ethnically diverse community college setting. A general lack of research exists on Arab experience in US educational institutions. What does exist mainly concerns historic immigrant experience, or high school level students (Sarroub) rather than that of current generations in the US college setting.
Community colleges have always been designed to allow easy access to affordable higher education for all segments of a local area’s residents, including recent high school graduates, returning students, those interested in lifelong education, and those looking for experience in the college setting before transferring to a four year institution. As such, their populations tend to be quite diverse in age and experience, reflective of the macrocosm of the surrounding communities. This is the institution in which many people, especially in areas of fairly homogenous ethnic settlement, are first exposed to diverse cultural influences.
The community college, therefore, is charged with the duty of creating a supportive and positive learning environment for all of its students. In order to accomplish this, the college needs to provide opportunities for informed exchange of information and discussion. This can be in the form of speakers from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, debates presented by faculty members, or cultural programming, which is presented to students as part of the extracurricular learning atmosphere. The opportunity for involvement in multi-cultural or diversity oriented clubs might also be instrumental in providing students with the opportunity to increase their knowledge of the beliefs and customs of their fellow students, as well as other community groups. All of these suggestions were offered and strongly supported by the students interviewed.
In this study, the potential barriers for integration of Yemeni students into the Erie Community College community were explored. Although social interactions between males and females are strictly managed within the culture as a rule, in the case of education, exceptions may be made to allow open communication. This suggests that the educational setting may be the best vehicle for encouraging the beginning of dialogue between groups traditionally restricted from free interactions. Not only might it foster greater understanding of groups that suffer from negative stereotyping, but will better prepare the student for successful interactions in the workplace environment.
Chesler, P. (2/14/2009). Beheaded In Buffalo The Honor Killing of Asiya Z. Hassan. Retrieved April 23, 2009, from
Hoffman, LoisW. (1989). Effects of Maternal Employment in the Two-parent Family. [Electronic Version]American Psychologist, Vol44(2), 283-292
Sabagh, Georges, & Bozorgmehr, Mehdi. (1988). The Settlement of Yemeni Immigrants in the United States. In Friedlander, Johnathan (Ed.), Sojourners and Settlers: the Yemeni Immigrant Experience. (pp. ) Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press.
Sarroub, L. K. (2001). The Sojourner Experience of Yemeni American High School
Students: An Ethnographic Portrait. Harvard Educational Review, Fall, 390-415.
Swanson, Jon C. (1988). Sojourners and Settlers in Yemen and America. In Friedlander, Johnathan (Ed.), Sojourners and Settlers: the Yemeni Immigrant Experience. (pp.49-68) Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press.
US Census Bureau. (2000). Factfinder. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from http://factfinder.census.gov/
How many family members do you have living in this area?
more than 10
How long has your family been here?
Parents Education level?
father ( ) grade school ( ) high school ( ) some college ( ) college
mother ( ) grade school ( ) high school ( ) some college ( ) college
What is your family’s country of ethnic origin ? _________________________
Do you have a Religious Affiliation? ____________________________
Do you speak any languages besides English? (please list) ____________________________________
High School – Where did you attend? GPA?
Previous School Activities?
Did Family Support Higher Education?
What priority/importance do you give to your education?
How Does Your Family Support Your Education at ECC?
Study Questions: Core & Extended
Why did you choose ECC?
What is your goal career?
Will you continue your education after ECC?
What priority is your education?
Is your family supportive?
Are family influences important to determine where you go to school?
Are family influences important to determine what you do to work?
Do you plan to marry?
Do you plan to work after marriage?
How do you feel about your spouse going to school?
Do you think your culture and/or religion influence your education?
Do your culture and/or religion influence the education of others in your community?
Have you participated in any student groups at ECC?
Have facilities like Skills Center, Library, Computer Lab, and Gym been useful?
Are there any groups or facilities ECC is lacking?
Have you had any problems working with students? Faculty?
Have you had positive experiences with students? Faculty?
Are teachers giving you support for family obligations and religious observations?
Is it difficult to make friends with students outside your religious or cultural community?
Do you tend to take classes with other Arab or Islamic students?
How do other students view Arab students or Islamic students?
Is there something you wish the student body knew about you and/or your community?
Is there anything you or other students seem confused about?
Has there been anything Arab and/or Islamic students seem concerned about?
Do you have any suggestions for improvements to your ECC experience?
Do you have any suggestions to improve relations between students & your community?
Would a multicultural group / forum / speaker / debate help students like you?
Would these things help you to connect with others?
Would you say you socialize more at school or at home or in another place?
Would you consider the results of this study important to you and/or your community?