Background information: of the half-million or so foreign students studying in the United States, Saudi Arabia has the ninth-largest contingent. I don't have exact numbers on how many they are, but given that the usual suspects like India, Taiwan, China, and South Korea are perennially at the top of the list, the fact that Saudi is even in the top ten is significant. (Let's not quibble about Taiwan as a country, shall we?) The king created a scholarship program four years ago to send more Saudis to the US to study, which has increased the number significantly to our own great benefit - the scholarship's recipients and family members contribute about a half-billion dollars to the US economy annually, and the king just announced that the monthly allowance given to these students in the US is going up by 50%. In short, this is a big deal at the embasssy, and since Saudis are always afraid of the visa process and how long it takes, we get dragged into the news a lot as well.
This led to me going to a interview last Saturday, broadcast live on the Saudi national radio network and rebroadcast a few times over the week. I and two public affairs people from the embassy fielded questions from our host and students inside the kingdom and already present in the US. Most of the questions were about the visa process, especially how long it takes and how it can be made easier. The interview was in English, and it was publicized pretty heavily in the Saudi English-language media before and after the program. The host told us that it was the first time someone from the consular section showed up to answer live questions, and we're looking at doing future interviews in Arabic for the radio station. Interestingly, the host is a Wash U graduate, the first I've met in Saudi Arabia so far. He told me that there are a number of Wash U grads (mostly from the graduate school of social work, like him) teaching at the main university in Riyadh, so maybe I can get in touch with them somehow and work that networking thing that the Career Center was always telling us to do.
It's nice to get out of the office and away from the paperwork and personnel stress there to interact with real people. I'm hoping I can continue to do these presentations for the next year, so I can remind myself that there is a world outside the visa line, and that every interaction doesn't have to be an adversarial interview.