A Day in the Life: A Q&A with Samantha Lee Ragan, an INTERLINK site director and testing coordinator, on What Life is Really Like in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
There is a lot of uncertainty on the part of many female applicants who are concerned about what life is “really” like for women who live and work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Who better to provide INTERLINK’s female applicants with an accurate picture of life in the KSA than our female, Saudi administrative and teaching staff.
A questionnaire was sent to a group of successful female site directors and teachers currently working throughout the country.
The following Q&A profile is with Samantha Ragan who currently serves as the site director for the women’s campus at Hofuf, Al-Ahsa.
Country of Origin: USA
Current Job Title/Position: Site Director, Testing Coordinator
Q: Where are you located in Saudi Arabia?
A: Hofuf, Al-Ahsa, Eastern Province
Q: How long have you taught in Saudi Arabia?
A: I have been in KSA for just over one year.
Q: Please list all countries where you’ve taught:
A: I was born and raised as an American expat overseas and have lived and worked in many countries. I’ve worked as an adult ESL teacher, teacher trainer and consultant for twelve years in the USA, Guam, and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Q: When searching for teaching opportunities abroad, why did you choose to apply for a position in Saudi Arabia?
A: I was looking throughout the Gulf region, not just Saudi Arabia. I’ve been to Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and islands in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. I have always been curious about the Middle East, so after visiting my husband while he was working in Kuwait, I wanted to see more. The best way to experience Saudi Arabia is by working here.
Q: During the application process, did you have any fears or reservations about Saudi Arabia? If so, what were your fears? Where did these fears originate? Please be specific.
A: I can’t say I had any fears, but there is a lot of negative information about KSA online, mostly from people who didn’t have a good experience here. I was concerned about my physical safety and the level of oppression that I’d feel under Sharia law and how it would affect me psychologically. This concern originated from lack of knowledge, so I began to search for any information I could find at the library and online.
Q: After your arrival in Saudi Arabia, did you have problems adjusting to your new environment? If so, what were some of the obstacles you faced? How did you overcome these obstacles?
A: The heat in August is pretty intense, so I appreciate good air-conditioning. I stay indoors a lot more because of the heat. Another thing is getting used to everything shutting down during prayer time. I’ve been in the checkout line at the grocery store when prayer time started, and the checker stopped what he was doing while everyone was ushered out of the store and the security gates came down. Half an hour later, we were let back in, I went back to my items on the conveyor belt, people resumed their places in line, and the checker got back to ringing up my groceries. If you don’t time your shopping or errands around the prayer schedule, this could happen to you five times a day.
Q: When preparing to live and work abroad, expats read and hear a lot about “culture shock,” and how it’s to be expected to some degree anytime you live and work in a foreign country. Have you experienced “culture shock” in Saudi Arabia? Please describe these experience(s). Do you think “culture shock” is more acute in Saudi Arabia than in most places? If you answer yes, please explain?
A: I’ve studied and understand the stages of culture shock and have observed acute cases in others. I was ready and waiting for it to happen to me, but it never did. I researched KSA thoroughly and read everything I could get my hands on before coming here, so there were no surprises. I came mentally prepared! This won’t guarantee immunity from culture shock, but I believe that educating oneself beforehand can certainly minimize it to some degree.
Q: How did you adjust and adapt to your new surroundings? What have you encountered that has required the biggest adjustment for you?
A: The biggest adjustment for me as a woman is not being able to drive. I’ve had to adjust to being dependent on others to get me where I want to go. I miss the spontaneity of deciding where I want to go and just going there. Now it involves calling and waiting for an available driver, and often having to share that ride with others who have their own errands to run, so nothing is a quick trip. This, of course, depends on whether you are in an urban or more rural area. Add prayer time to that, and it becomes more hassle than it’s worth. I would like to be able to drive around and explore and just be a tourist and have little adventures on my own. I miss being alone in my car, just processing my thoughts or singing along to some good music on the way home from work.
Q: If there were ONE thing you wish you’d known before you arrived, what would it be? If you had to offer a new teacher only ONE piece of advice, what would it be?
A: I knew what to expect because of all my research, so I would advise people to read everything they can before coming here. There is also a lot of misleading information online, so they should question everything and contact people who are in the city or region where they are going, especially if they have any lingering reservations. I talked to a British woman who had lived here for ten years and she put me at ease by telling me all the positive things about the place and about how a lot of people actually enjoy the lifestyle.
Q: What do you like most about living and working in Saudi Arabia? What would you like to change
A: Geographically, it’s a good base to travel from. There are some great places you can get to easily and inexpensively from here – not only other countries in the Middle East, but also Europe, Asia and Africa. It’s fun to compare notes with everyone to see where they’ve been recently and get good travel advice and ideas. Oh, and the camels! I love petting the camels. They are wonderful creatures. I want to adopt them all.
Q: What has surprised you most about living and working in Saudi Arabia?
A: How easy it is to be a vegetarian here (always a concern when I travel). Luckily, hummus, tabouli, falafels, babaganoush and stuffed grape leaves are available just about anywhere, and these are staples for vegetarians back home in the northeast USA.
Q: What is it like to be a foreign, female working in Saudi Arabia? How do you think your experience differs from your male counterparts, if at all?
A: Both sides have to deal with gender segregation, which is unnatural to most of us. It’s odd not to see half the population because they are covered from head to toe in black. Men have rights that women don’t have. Depending on the city, life can be difficult for women who don’t have a male guardian for the simplest things like going to the bank. Also, the degree to which foreign women need to cover their heads and faces varies from region to region. It’s different for the students as well. Male students can go on field trips and are able to post video projects online, whereas female students aren’t allowed on field trips (the guardian thing again) and can’t take part in any media projects that reveal any information about themselves, can’t do voice recordings or show video. They are not allowed to bring laptops or smart phones unless granted special permission.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Saudi Arabia and its citizens?
A: I don’t know. The ones I work with are wonderful, warm and friendly people.
Q: Since gaining first-hand knowledge, have your initial impressions and feelings about the country changed? If so, how and in what ways?
A: No, not really. I came here with an open mind. I am here as a guest in their country. It’s still an adventure and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. The way things are here makes sense when you consider the context, the history and geography.
Q: If you were interviewing/hiring foreign teachers to work alongside you in the KSA, what kinds of questions would you ask in order to determine the candidate’s suitability to the job and environment? What answers would be “red flags” indicating to you that the candidate would not be a good fit in that particular teaching environment?
A: This should not be the first foreign country that a person travels to for work. The candidate should have lived in several different countries and be curious and open to learning about different cultures without being judgmental. He or she should not be on a mission to change or convert the Saudis or to point out what he or she thinks is wrong with their culture, and should not come here hoping to date or find a mate. Muslims and anyone interested in Arabic language and culture will do well here. Single people have to be very comfortable being by themselves. The people who seem to do best here are those with hobbies and interests to keep them occupied while alone. Many people are working on Master’s degrees and other online certifications while they are here. Others are catching up on reading 36,000 titles on Kindle, or writing the next great novel. I’ve finally found time to learn to play the guitar.