SABIC Foundation Year students smile while posing in front of a volunteer site in Puerto Rico

SABIC Foundation Year Students Embrace Service-Learning in Puerto Rico

  • Jul 6, 2023
  • Kayla Johnson

Adnan Alturkestani and Abdulmalik Al Qahtani will forever cherish the week they spent in Puerto Rico, helping with rebuilding efforts in a community devastated by a hurricane, savoring new foods and swimming beneath an enchanting waterfall in one of the island’s lush rainforests. But the trip — and the lessons it taught them about resilience and mindful volunteering — were just the tip of the iceberg in the most transformative year of their lives.   

The two Saudi Arabian natives gained the opportunity to feed their curiosity about new cultures as part of a cohort of eight students sponsored by the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) to complete a year of cultural immersion and academic exploration at The University of Texas at Austin. 

The SABIC Foundation Year Program provides scholarships for high-achieving recent high school graduates in Saudi Arabia to study at a university in the United States for 10 months, during which they learn skills that support college preparedness, leadership and public service. The students then complete bachelor’s degree programs around the U.S. before returning home to work for five years at SABIC, one of the world’s largest petrochemical manufacturers.  

“I was really happy that we got to be placed at UT Austin because of its reputation as a well-ranked university,” Alturkestani said. While he anticipated rigorous coursework, he said, he remained aware of the program’s overarching objective: to expose him to diverse knowledge and experiences, transforming him into a versatile asset for the professional world.  

Equipping Students for College Success 

UT Austin has been a key partner for SABIC since 2010, largely via the university’s English Language Center (ELC). During the 2022-2023 academic year, the SABIC Foundation Year program encompassed everything from college admissions coaching to English language instruction to non-credit courses in science and math taught by UT Austin professors.  

The Fall 2022 semester focused on college readiness, with SABIC students preparing for standardized exams such as the SAT and TOEFL, and crafting essays for their college applications alongside English language and math courses. In the spring semester, with their college applications complete, the students continued their language studies while also taking STEM classes. 

“It’s great that you have this university-level class, but at the same time, they’re friendlier and more cooperative than the usual university instructor,” Alturkestani said, adding that the small class sizes allowed for more hands-on learning. 

SABIC students smile in front of the Space Center in Houston

In addition to their coursework, the students explored Austin, with activities like go-karting at the Circuit of the Americas, escape room challenges and strolls through Mayfield Park. They also took field trips to the renowned Riverwalk in San Antonio, as well as the Museum of Natural Science and the Space Center in Houston.  

During the Summer 2023 session, the students engaged in courses such as calculus, physics and programming, which would prepare them to do well in their first year of college. Both Alturkestani and Al Qahtani plan to study computer science with a focus on cybersecurity, so these classes were particularly well aligned with their interests.  

“I kept on being surprised about how much I learned in this foundation year,” Alturkestani said, reflecting on the fact that he not only gained an intimate understanding of American culture but also of the diverse cultures of his ELC classmates, who hailed from countries like Honduras, Japan, Argentina and Ukraine.   

Service-Learning and Cultural Immersion

Volunteering is a central component of the Foundation Year program, and the students embraced the spirit of service during a weeklong project in Puerto Rico in the spring, following hurricane season.   

Students smile in front of a scenic view in Puerto Rico

Al Qahtani said he knew nothing about the culture, history or geography of Puerto Rico before traveling there. But as soon as he arrived, he fell in love with the island.  

“It was one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” Al Qahtani said. “I loved that trip to Puerto Rico because it showed us how this culture works and how our help could change the lives of the Puerto Ricans affected by the storms.”  

Before their departure, the students learned the importance of mindful volunteering, centered on making a positive impact while respecting the community’s needs and perspectives. Instructors stressed the significance of intentionality in their approach to prevent potential harm, dependency or superficiality in their efforts. 

“You don’t want to give help where it’s not wanted, and you don’t want to give help where it can cause more damage or dependence on you later on,” Alturkestani explained.  

One of the rewarding projects they undertook was clearing out trails to help rehabilitate a nature preserve. Local community members had been tirelessly working on the project to bring economic opportunity to the area and safeguard the preserve against exploitation of its resources.  

Clad in protective gear, the students diligently fulfilled their tasks — some cutting down trees while others focused on placing outline markers along the trail. Alturkestani marveled at the sight of wild cows and horses grazing as the students ventured deeper into the forest.  

On another day, the team met a family who needed help reconstructing their unstable, wooden house with hurricane-resilient materials. The students’ responsibility was to prepare the foundation of the house, laying the groundwork for future groups of volunteers to complete the construction later.  

The students worked alongside the father of the family and his young son. Al Qahtani, inspired by the contagious enthusiasm of the boy, found himself motivated to work even harder. 

“He’s a small child, but he was so passionate about his new house,” Al Qahtani said. “This encouraged me because I’m not doing something that I don’t know who is going to benefit from. I'm seeing this kid who lost his house and who needs our help.”  

The students said they were overjoyed to learn that the house was completed a few months after they departed from Puerto Rico. Al Qahtani expressed that although their work constituted just the first step in the process, it was rewarding to contribute to an important cause.  

“This is one day in my life and it can change the entire life of a person that lost his hope and lost everything,” Al Qahtani said.   

Both students found their volunteering experience to be an “eye-opener,” serving as a poignant reminder to be grateful for the large and small that they often overlook, like having a stable home.   

Outside their volunteering efforts, the students were immersed in Puerto Rican culture, exploring the area and embarking on memorable excursions such as hiking in El Yunque National Rainforest and partaking in bioluminescent kayaking. 

Connected Cohort Embraces Next Chapter 

As the Summer 2023 session draws to a close, the SABIC Foundation Year students are preparing to embark on the next chapter of their academic journeys: beginning their undergraduate careers.   

Alturkestani and Al Qahtani expressed a mix of anticipation and nervousness about stepping out from under the guidance of their mentors at UT Austin and taking control of their academic pursuits. Alongside these emotions, they also face the bittersweet reality of bidding farewell to friends who have become like brothers over the past year.  

While four students, including Alturkestani, have been admitted to North Carolina State University, the remaining four will forge their own paths at different universities across the country.  

SABIC volunteers smile on the beach

“If I wouldn’t get anything out of this whole year except meeting my colleagues, friends and my brothers from the program, that’d be enough for me,” Alturkestani said. He added that despite the sacrifices they made to participate in the program, including being away from their families for so long, the cohort had created “a new family” that offers unwavering support. 

Al Qahtani will attend Virginia Tech, which he said is the perfect fit for him, as someone who grew up in a village and isn’t keen on bustling cities. Despite the distance, he remains confident that the connections forged within their cohort will persist.  

“We will be separated geographically, but we’ll still be with each other,” Al Qahtani said.   

Both students anticipate making the most of their college experience, delving into their interests, having fun and continuing to make a positive impact on those around them. They also look forward to the opportunity to work for SABIC, where they aim to excel as pioneers in propelling Saudi Arabia’s tech industry to new heights.  

Al Qahtani reflected on his time in Puerto Rico, emphasizing the crucial lesson he will carry with him: the immense impact that even the smallest actions can have when people put their minds together for a common goal. 

“Being in a group where everybody does his little job collectively has a big impact on the lives of others,” Al Qahtani said.