Muhammed Alattas used to fetch coffee for his bosses in Saudi Arabia. One day, a new manager decided the people who reported to him were not his personal baristas but, instead, valued employees who could help the business thrive if managed differently.
It was a light bulb moment for Alattas, a May 2008 graduate of Fontbonne University's international master's in business administration program.
"This particular manager had an MBA from the United States, and he changed our processes to make the business more profitable," says Alattas, who was born and raised in Yemen. "He made me want
to come to the U.S. for an education, too."
After graduating from Zarka University in Jordan and working almost five years in the finance department of a Saudi construction company, Alattas ventured to the University of Oregon for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. He was nervous about how Americans might treat a Muslim man post 9/11.
"I was afraid of a new culture at first, but people were very accepting, and then I was fine," the 31 year-old says. "I lived with a family in Eugene, Oregon. We are still close."
While in Oregon, and now joined by his wife, Areej, Alattas made a decision to experience American culture without rejecting his Muslim faith. "If you just keep your culture and don't share in a new culture, you will not learn from others," he says. "I went to parties (but did not drink). By going, it helped me to experience this culture and make friends and keep the best things in my culture."
Alattas began to look for a master's degree program. A friend from Saudi Arabia living in St. Louis told him good things about the Gateway City.
"I found Fontbonne University online," he says. "I talked to Rebecca Bahan, director of international affairs. She has been to the Middle East and made me feel comfortable because she understood
my culture and had seen it first hand."
Allaying fears and concerns is a major priority for Fontbonne staff and faculty who recruit, support and teach international students. "We know there can be a lot of anxieties and questions," Bahan says. "Many of us have traveled to various countries and it helps us understand the perspectives of these students. They really appreciate the connection we make with them and the support system we have in place."
Once enrolled at Fontbonne, Alattas had only one concern - the size. "I was worried that Fontbonne was too small," he says. His concerns were put to rest while at a Chinese New Year celebration held annually on campus.
"Dr. Golden (Fontbonne's president) said to me, ‘Muhammed, where can you learn more, with 50-plus students in a class or 10?' I said ‘10' of course. He convinced me. That interaction made Areej and I feel comfortable and important to the school."
What also made them feel at home was the freedom to practice their Muslim faith. "I practiced prayer in the prayer room or the chapel. We feel really free here even though we are from a different culture," says Alattas, who was invited to speak with two religion classes at Fontbonne and was also the featured student speaker at the international commencement ceremony. "I realized we need a bridge to connect the Middle East to the West.
People here don't know a lot about Muslims, but they respect you no matter what color or religion you are. This is why people like America."
Fontbonne's international MBA program is fashioned similarly to the traditional MBA, but with special attention given to language challenges, housing and special cultural events.
"The issues discussed and the application of different cultures is enriched by these students and what
they have to offer," says Mark Alexander, assistant chairperson for Fontbonne's new College of Global Business and Professional Studies. "It is very exciting for me as an instructor in these courses."
Fontbonne recently launched a new graduate marketing degree specifically aimed at international MBA students, according to Alexander. "This is a great program for graduates who want to further their studies in a specific field that has shown a need for talented managers in a global trade environment," Alexander says.
Alattas, however, won't be pursuing additional schoolwork for now. Since graduating, he landed a supervisor position with Citibank in St. Louis. He says his coursework and instructors prepared him to be a successful manager. "I learned a lot about business finance," he says. "And the instructors are good at dealing with international students. Many have experience in different cultures. They make us comfortable and don't get upset if we do something culturally different."
Alattas hopes to return to Saudi Arabia after a year or so to be closer to family. But, he says, he will take his Fontbonne education with him wherever he goes.
Learn more: International programs