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Pursuing education to inhabit a bigger world

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Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas. (Photo provided by Ms. Al-Abbas.)

Growing up on an island in the Red Sea, Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas dreamed of going to college in a city, a dream that grew into pursuing a Ph.D. in the U.S.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

In honor of International Women’s Day 2021 on March 8, the UCLA International Institute is publishing a series of profiles of female Bruins who have overcome challenges in their quest to effect change in the world.

UCLA Global, March 10, 2021 — “Since I was seven or eight, I have been telling my parents, ‘I will make you proud of me one day.’” says Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas, a UCLA graduate student in linguistics who hails from Saudi Arabia.

“My family is the most valuable thing in life to me and I knew that by becoming educated, I could get a job and help them,” she explains. “Neither of my parents finished primary school, but they learned to read and write and valued education for their 10 children,” she adds.

A warm, ebullient young woman with a sunny disposition, Abeer grew up in the Farasan Islands, a group of coral islands in the Red Sea. A star student throughout her school years, Abeer set her sights on a college education as a young girl with her mother’s strong support. “It was my greatest dream simply to travel to a big city in Saudi Arabia to pursue a college education,” she remarks.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Abeer had to move to mainland Saudi Arabia to attend college. “My Dad was worried about me living alone in a city because he loves me,” she says. Luckily, her maternal uncle lived in the port city of Jeddah and she was able to live with his family and attend classes there.

She chose linguistics among the majors open to her because she felt it would help her learn foreign languages. She began her studies at Jeddah University, but finished her B.A. at Jazan University (closer to the Farasan Islands) in 2011.

She soon found a job at her alma mater as a linguistics lecturer, but was required to continue her higher education. “I had heard how the United States had the biggest and greatest universities in the world, and I felt that my place was there,” relates Abeer. At the time, she knew many people who were moving abroad to pursue doctorates, funded by generous scholarships provided by the Saudi government.

“Even though it was hard for my father and my family to say goodbye to their daughter, I convinced them how valuable this chance was for me and my future,” she says. “By going to America to get my Ph.D., I would have better opportunities to expand my learning, my cultural awareness and my life.”

By late 2013, Abeer was enrolled in the intensive English program of the American Language Institute at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). She studied diligently, passing the IELTS exam* (an admissions requirement for international students at U.S. universities) after just seven months.

After completing the English program, she didn’t feel quite ready to apply to UCLA and enrolled in an M.A. degree in linguistics at CSULB. The energetic Saudi student dove into campus life, volunteering to teach workshops for foreign students studying for the IELTS and TOEFL exams,** becoming president of the Saudi Student Organization and organizing a well-received campus “Saudi Arabian Night” attended by some 400 people.

Abeer completed her M.A. in 2018 after publishing her first linguistics research paper. She was accepted into a number of doctoral programs in linguistics, including UCLA. However, UCLA granted her only conditional admittance, requiring that she first complete 40 additional units of study because she had studied functional linguistics and the UCLA program focuses on theoretical linguistics.

“I told the professors at my UCLA interview, if I could earn a master’s degree from a U.S. university and didn’t know English when I first arrived, I can earn a Ph.D. from your school — nothing is hard for me,” she recounts. Despite the extra year of study, the Saudi government covered the tuition, as Abeer was serving their mission of having women obtain their higher educations at top schools in the world, such as UCLA.

Now in her third year of study at UCLA, the Bruin graduate student is on the cusp of submitting her qualifying paper (thesis) to become an official Ph.D. candidate and hopes to become a teaching assistant this spring or fall.

“I’ve gained something bigger than just an education by studying in America,” she says. “It’s made me more open to the world. I value that people from other cultures and religions are now my close friends — that was the greatest thing I learned here,” she says.

“Abeer came to us with an educational background that is different than most of our applicants. But she stood out, as I think she has probably always stood out, for her intelligence, determination and phenomenal attitude,” says her advisor, Professor of Linguistics Jessica Rett.

“She is doing pioneering work on the documentation of intonational patterns in Farasani Arabic, a low-prestige dialect of Arabic spoken by 20,000 people in the Farasan Islands,” adds Rett. “We are very certain she will go on to do amazing things in the field of linguistics and beyond.”

Nina Hyams, distinguished professor of linguistics, agrees. “Her work on this previously understudied and under-documented variety of Arabic promises to be an important contribution to the study of the Semitic languages,” she comments.

Abeer is deeply grateful for the support of her department, her family and her government and looks forward to returning Saudi Arabia. “I have a chance that a lot of people from other countries and other families don’t get,” she reflects, “so I feel I need to work hard to deserve that.”

She is also thankful to Jazan University, which has hired her as a faculty member, and to the Saudi government for sponsoring her education and that of hundreds of thousands of other Saudi students abroad. She is very optimistic about her future, noting that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has opened more opportunities for women to be leaders.

* IELTS – International English Language Testing System.
** TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language.