ELC student Banan Alaraj at the finish line of her 10K race

Passion, Determination Elevate Language Studies for Saudi Student

  • Aug 15, 2023
  • English Language Center
  • Kayla Johnson

At age 29, Banan Alaraj made an ambitious pivot with her decision to study English at The University of Texas at Austin — a choice she hoped would open new doors in her professional life. Filled with both nervousness and unwavering determination, she embraced an experience that would redefine her professional and personal goals.  

After completing her bachelor’s degree in economics, the Saudi Arabian native had worked for six years at a bank in her hometown of Riyadh, but she nurtured greater career aspirations, which would compel her to improve her English skills in pursuit of a master’s degree abroad. 

Alaraj had received a scholarship to support her travels and, she said, among the list of pre-approved host universities from which she could choose, UT Austin stood out. The friendly and welcoming administration left a positive impression that ultimately led her to choose Texas. 

While her family supported her ambition to study overseas, they also expressed concern about her moving far away. But Alaraj remained steadfast in her decision, reassuring them that the experience would present the perfect opportunity to step out of her comfort zone and push herself academically. 

English Language Center student Banan Alaraj

“I just insisted on coming to the United States to experience studying abroad, and to also improve my English with native speakers,” Alaraj affirmed. “And I didn’t regret it at all.” 

Alaraj viewed moving to Texas, a place she’d never visited before, as a thrilling challenge. Despite the initial nerves she felt, she said, “Part of me was super excited to explore this part of the world.” 

Satisfaction Outside the Comfort Zone  

A homestay made the transition to living in Austin easier. Her host mother not only provided a comfortable home for her to stay in, Alaraj said, but she also acted as a mentor who constantly pushed her visitor to go out and try new things. 

“She was a very helpful woman, and she was very supportive,” Alaraj said, recalling how her host mom would eagerly review her English homework and take her to explore Austin’s landmarks on the weekends.  

When she first arrived in Austin, Alaraj was surprised at how it defied her initial expectations. Rather than the grand metropolis she had imagined, with skyscrapers on every corner, the city seemed small. But she was charmed by Austin’s vibrant and friendly culture and abundant green spaces. She said she also admired the city’s eco-conscious approach to food disposal and composting options to avoid waste. 

After not having studied in a formal classroom setting for seven years, Alaraj embraced the opportunity to improve her English. She took courses at UT Austin’s English Language Center (ELC), which offers comprehensive English language programs to help international students and professionals enhance their communication skills. 

Eager to push herself, Alaraj enrolled in both the English Language Program (ELP) and Academic English Program (AEP) learning tracks. While the ELP covered fundamental grammar, vocabulary and conversation skills, the AEP catered more to her graduate school goals, nurturing critical thinking along with formal writing and research skills.  

Engaging with a culturally diverse array of classmates further enriched her experience, and through her classwork and daily interactions, she gained the confidence to speak with new people. Alaraj acknowledged the comfort of bonding with fellow students from the same country. But she also warned that sticking to one homogenous social circle could delay a student’s language development and limit the overall experience. 

“International students have this sense of embarrassment when speaking with American students because they’re afraid of being judged,” she explained. 

Alaraj developed a close friendship with a classmate named Tyler, an American student who was learning Arabic. The two bonded over their shared struggles with language learning and helped each other improve in their respective languages.  

“We were in the same boat,” she explained. “So, she understood me when I would get stuck on some words, and she was also experiencing the same.” 

Alaraj also got a taste of American culture through monthly gatherings hosted by her friends, whether it was Thanksgiving festivities or dinner at their homes.  

Igniting Passion and Dedication 

Outside of her classes, Alaraj developed an unexpected new passion: running. She had always been a sports enthusiast, but she’d never been interested in running before. Encouraged by her host mom, she registered for a local 5K event on a whim. Since she signed up the day before the race, her only preparation was a 30-minute jog around the neighborhood. 

Though challenging, Alaraj said, the experience ignited a determination within her. She decided to train harder for a 10K race just three months away and began running three times a week in her neighborhood and around campus. 

Race day brought a flurry of unforeseen obstacles. Alaraj was late leaving the house and even more dismayed to find that several streets had been blocked off beforehand. Despite her host mom’s efforts to drop her off as close as possible to the Capitol, Alaraj still needed to run a mile to reach the starting point. By the time she arrived, she realized, the other participants had already begun running the course. 

Undaunted by her initial setbacks, Alaraj fearlessly joined in the race, finding strength in the cheers of the spectators. “It was amazing to see how people came to support their family members who were participants in the race,” she said. 

After enduring some grueling moments filled with self-doubt, Alaraj finally surged across the finish line with an immense sense of pride. She had completed the race in 1 hour, 40 minutes. 

Banan Alaraj holds up the Austin Cap 10K sign

Soon, however, she found that pushing her limits to complete the 10K would pale beside her greatest academic achievement: excelling on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam.   

The IELTS allows individuals interested in living, studying or working in an English-speaking country to evaluate their language proficiency. For Alaraj, achieving a high score not only proved that her efforts at the ELC had been fruitful but also demonstrated her readiness to advance to the next level in her education. 

Alaraj is now setting her sights on a master’s degree in marketing at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. After making that achievement and eventually obtaining her Ph.D., she plans to acquire hands-on experience working in the United States before starting her own business aimed at helping companies rebrand themselves.  

Looking back on the obstacles she overcame during her time abroad, Alaraj encourages other international students to embrace the learning process wholeheartedly, without the fear of making mistakes. Without those, she said, you wouldn’t grow. 

“You paid this amount to come abroad, and you did a lot of things to be in this place, so don’t be embarrassed of trying to learn to speak,” Alaraj said. 

She said she was initially afraid to leave her home and family to pursue career opportunities across the world. But achieving her goals at UT Austin instilled a newfound confidence in her ability to thrive in the face of challenges, which she will carry with her to graduate school.  

“Now I completely believe that I did it once, so I will do it again,” Alaraj said. “And since I’ve finished at the English Language Center, I will finish the next university program. It’s never impossible.”