In this study, I had investigated how Saudi students at The University of Akron perceive and experience coeducation as individuals who originate from a cultural environment and educational system that normalizes the separation of sexes, and explore any differences in such perceptions and experiences between male and female Saudi students. The objective of this study was to find answers to four questions; (a) How do Saudi students, as products of a single-sex education system and a gender-segregated culture, perceive the coeducation experience while attending academic programs in the U.S.? (b) Do Saudi women perceive the coeducational experience of the U.S. differently from Saudi men? (c) Is the gender of the student a factor in hindering or accelerating adjustment to this new norm? Or is it the time spent in a coeducation setting? Or is it both? (d) How may the perceived challenges of adapting to coeducation be mitigated or resolved?
To address the research problem and questions, I had applied a phenomenological methodology, as to study the perceptions of four randomly selected Saudi students attending the University of Akron, differing in gender, level of education and time spent in the U.S., and to assess the role of gender and time in their adjustment to coeducation.
Guided by the focus of this study, I presented a theoretical framework that consisted of several gender identity, social identity and acculturation theories and models, and used this framework in interpreting the responses of the study’s subjects.
Additionally, I had discussed the predominant social and gender identities in Saudi Arabia and reviewed previous studies that have researched the experiences of Saudi students attending higher education in western countries in relation to matters of gender and coeducation, as to present a contextual setting for the analysis of the responses.
In relation to the research questions, this study suggests that there are indeed differences between the perceptions and experiences of Saudi female and male students attending a coeducation program at The University of Akron. Female participants had found that their initial expectations of experiencing a coeducation program had little impact on their first interaction with non-Saudi students of the opposite sex. Additionally, they had commented that during the first month, their interactions with male teachers were influenced by the norms of their home culture, that they were more concerned with the view of others, that they had preferred to join groups of female only students, and that their perceptions and experiences would be the same had they been men.
However, the participants, male and female, had also reported to have similar perceptions and experiences in adjusting to coeducation. They had mentioned that before arriving in the U.S., they had developed a broad premonition about education and coeducation in the U.S., had not identified any specific challenges they wished to avoid whilst in a coeducation program, and believed that any challenges they would meet should be resolved by themselves. They also mutually agreed that on the first day, they had experienced stress and anxiety due to coeducation, and for the duration of the first month they had experienced intense feelings of embarrassment and discomfort when interacting with Saudi students of the opposite sex, and an unexpected ease to interact with non-Saudi students of the opposite sex. All participants had reported to view coeducation as normal by the end of the first semester and their current perceptions to coeducation to be positive, and significantly different from their initial perceptions, thus they would prefer to continue to attend a coeducation program in the U.S. even if they had the choice to transfer to a separate sex program. However, they also reported that they continue to experience various levels of difficulty and embarrassment when interacting with Saudi students of the opposite sex, and that they would prefer to join a separate sex setting when returning to Saudi Arabia.
The gender-based concerns and issues not only suggest that Saudi female students may have several different coeducation-related perceptions and experiences, but also that their adaptation to coeducation may be more challenging for them than it is for Saudi male students. Thus, the gender of Saudi female students could be a hindering factor during their adaptation of coeducation, especially during the first semester attending a coeducation program. On the other hand, the mutual points of agreement between male and female participants suggest that Saudi students of both genders would also have similar perceptions and experiences during and post to adapting to coeducation. Therefore, while male and female Saudi students in coeducation would at times face similar challenges, hold similar perceptions and live through similar experiences, at other times, female Saudi students may have different experiences and perceptions that are unique to their gender. These gender-exclusive factors may make adapting to coeducation more challenging, demanding and stressful than it is for male Saudi students.
In the context of the previous studies, I found that the themes of this study partially differ from the themes of such studies, and add new themes that were not previously identified. The foremost significant new theme is that Saudi students of both genders, and regardless of length of stay and exposure to coeducation, continue to experience difficulty and embarrassment when interacting with Saudi students of the opposite sex, and not with non-Saudi students of the opposite sex. In the context of theories, this theme may translate as achieving a temporary level of cultural adaptation to coeducation, and acquiring a contextual intercultural social identity. In other terms, and in answering the first research question, this means that Saudi students of both genders who are attending a coeducation program would base their perception of the normality of coeducation, or mixing of genders, on the context of the situation. For when in a context and situation that normalizes coeducation, such as attending their studies in a cultural environment in which coeducation is the norm or when interacting with American students, they would perceive coeducation as normal and appropriate. However, when Saudi students find themselves in a context and situation in which coeducation is not the norm, such as when returning to Saudi Arabia or when interacting with other Saudi students, their would perceive coeducation to be abnormal and inappropriate.
Thus, I conclude that Saudi students attending a coeducation program in the U.S. may have different perceptions and experiences while adapting to coeducation, especially during the first semester, which differ according to their gender and consequently make it more the adaptation process more challenging for female Saudi students. However, after gaining sufficient exposure to coeducation, Saudi students, both male and female, would achieve a similar level of adaptation and adjustment to the cultural difference of coeducation and be capable of interacting effectively and stressfully with non-Saudi students of the opposite sex. The exclusion to this conclusion is that they still may experience various levels of stress, difficulty and embarrassment when interacting with Saudi students of the opposite sex.
It the recommendation for Saudi students who intend to study abroad, The Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia, The University of Akron and researchers to further investigate the causations of such issue and recommend resolutions that may mitigate the stress of these experiences.