When Saudi Arabian Zaynab Alshakhiss was elected to the Weber State University student senate this spring, her home country’s media was sent into a frenzy.
Over a dozen media outlets approached Weber State and Alshakhiss about her ground breaking win as the international student senator for the 2012 - 13 year.
Alshakhiss is the first female Saudi Arabian to hold the international student senator position. She will represent all international students both male and female.
Weber State has more than 500 international students.
“It makes it a big deal because I’m a girl,” said Alshakhiss, a 22-year-old computer science major.
“It’s unusual. Most of the time, leadership positions where I am from are for males. It makes it kind of a big thing. Most of the newspapers were actually supportive. They were so excited for the news,” said Alshakhiss.
A former WSU student senator, Hamad Al Yami, who works at the WSU International Student and Scholar Center, told some of the media outlets in Saudi Arabia of the news.
“Everybody was so excited about the achievement of a Saudi woman getting in a leadership position,” Yami said. “It means a lot for Saudi women to see a Saudi woman involved with making decisions and representing all the international students at Weber State.”
“She is one of about 70,000 Saudi students in the United States, and there are no other Saudi women in her position. There are a few Saudi women who do lead groups of only Saudi students.”
Alshakhiss gives credit to Al Yami for helping her see her leadership potential.
“We had been working together to organize students in a club,” Alshakhiss said of her friend. “He just suggested, ‘What do you think (of running) for Senate? If you want to do it, I’m going to support you.’ ”
Alshakhiss was very skeptical at first.
“First of all, I was afraid,” Alshakhiss said. “It was going to be the first time in my life I would run for a position like this. It would be a big responsibility.
“But Hamad tells me, ‘Don’t even worry. I will help you as much as you need me, and others will help you.’ I decided to like the idea and said I would go for it,” said Alshakhiss.
One of Al Yami’s goals is to aid Saudi women in achieving their leadership potential.
“Zaynab has shown leadership through the Saudi Club at Weber State,” he said. “Why shouldn’t she run for this position in student government?”
Alshakhiss said, her senatorial goal is to improve life for all WSU international students.
“I would like to accomplish whatever would make their life here easier and better,” she said. “Any issues they face, I would like to handle it and do whatever I can to help them, to take some action to solve problems.”
“In Saudi Arabia, it is not the cultural norm for men and women to exchange ideas freely”, said Alshakhiss.
Alshakhiss has been living in Utah since 2008 and is extremely comfortable talking to people of both genders and all nationalities.
She chose to attend Weber State University because of its proximity to family members.
Alshakhiss hopes her election will inspire at least some of the girls and women back home who see her story in the newspapers.
“I think it will,” she said. “Why not?”
Upon graduating Alshakhiss would like to get a job in America to gain some experience and then move back to Saudi Arabia.
Would she like to be a leader again back in Saudi Arabia?
“I would like to for sure," said Alshakhiss.