When Andrew Cotton joined the Model Arab League at Texas State, he never imagined the involvement would lead him to the other side of the world.
Cotton, international studies senior and president of Model Arab League, was chosen in June for a two-week exchange trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Cotton said he learned of the summer fellowship at the Model Arab League Southwest Conference his organization attended at the University of North Texas last year.
“The representative of the national council came up to me and asked me if I’d be interested and sent me the information,” Cotton said. “The next week he told me that I got it. It was pretty amazing.”
The fellowship began with a pre-departure orientation on Saudi-U.S. relations in Washington D.C., and continued in various cities around Saudi Arabia including Riyadh, Dammam, Alkhovar and Jiddah before the group arrived back in the United States.
The group met with government officials, deans, businessmen and people from universities across the country in Saudi Arabia to learn and discuss the current political situation in the country, and what each can do to progress relations with one another. Cotton said in one meeting the delegates met with Foreign Minister Prince Turki bin Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence and the son of the late, King Faisal. They also spoke with a former Saudi Ambassador to Afghanistan at the meeting.
“We got to talk to him,” Cotton said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It was pretty priceless. You don’t really get that kind of opportunity so it was really cool.”
Cotton said he was eager to put the Arabic classes he has taken at Texas State to good use during the trip.
“I was excited to be able to go and use the Arabic I know in Saudi Arabia,” Cotton said.
Louie Bauldwin, international studies senior at the University of North Texas, also attended the fellowship, and said the experience was “life-changing.”
“I gained valuable perspective that I previously lacked,” Bauldwin said. “I now have a much more thorough understanding of Islam and Arab culture, and how closely they are intertwined.”
Cotton and Bauldwin were the only delegates representing Texas on the trip, and Bauldwin said the commonality helped the two hit it off instantly.
“One of my fondest memories was feeling joy in knowing that everyone we met in Saudi Arabia knew where Texas was,” Bauldwin said.
Cotton said one of the concerns that had a large impression on him was the way stereotypes among people of both countries were suddenly broken down through enhanced understanding.
“When you really get down to it and start meeting the people, all those things fall apart,” Cotton said. “(Saudi Arabia) is more than camels and oil.”
Elizabeth Bishop, assistant history professor and Model Arab League faculty mentor, has known Cotton since he was a student in one of her classes over a year ago. She said his exposure to Saudi Arabia is a valuable part of the learning experience.
“It’s wonderful to have such opportunities to strengthen and broaden their knowledge of the region through practical experiences such as his,” Bishop said. “I can see him pursuing a career in which he can employ all the skills he cultivated while serving as an officer in [Model Arab League] and the fellowship.”
Cotton said he has visited other countries outside the U.S. but felt most at home in Saudi Arabia.
“A lot of times when I was there, I felt more like I was in America than any of the other times I’ve been to Europe,” he said. “I went walking down the street in Riyadh and it made me feel like I was in Texas because no one else was walking. Everyone else was driving.”
Cotton said while in Riyadh, a moment struck him when a taxi driver unintentionally started a conversation that surpassed all cultural and language barriers.
“He was Nigerian and didn’t speak any English,” Cotton said. “One of the Saudi guys that was with us started talking to (him) about the World Cup. Everyone in the car started talking about soccer. It didn’t matter what language we were speaking because everyone understood and everyone was able to laugh. It was cool to see that unifying factor.”