Your first year of college is a difficult adjustment, no matter who you are or where you come from. But it can be especially difficult for international students. For Fatma Alkannan, a first-year biology student from Saudi Arabia, the differences between her home culture and America were clear from the beginning.

Fatma Alkannan

Fatma Alkannan“In America, it feels like everyone is on their own…In Saudi Arabia, they value having a support system and family over everything,” says Alkannan. “When I’m there, I’m part of a big family.”

Yet she has found a similar sense of support and intimacy at Carlow.

“I have trouble in big social situations,” says Alkannan. “Which is one of the main reasonswhy I picked Carlow. I know people who go to huge universities, and even their advisors don’t know their names.”

Alkannan’s Carlow advisor, Stephen Borecky, PhD, biology professor and director of the perfusion technology and autopsy specialist programs, definitely knows who she is. In fact, so do all of her professors, and they are always willing to give her any help she needs, one-on-one. 

A caring community is important not just to Alkannan but to most any student from any country. This is why she would not hesitate to recommend Carlow to those who might be new to the American experience.

Alkannan has lived in Pittsburgh for the past 10 years. During this time, she has held on to her heritage while adapting to an American way of life.

A proud, practicing Muslim, Alkannan regularly makes use of the University Commons prayer room. She is pleased that many Carlow students have learned about Islam and says she has learned a lot about Catholicism, too.

While still fluent in her native Arabic, Alkannan speaks English with no discernible accent, giving credit to classes in English as a second language. But socializing with a close circle of friends helped more than anything. She says that, as a result, when visiting back home, “My family makes fun of me for my American accent. I think they’re just jealous.”

Alkannan sums up life in two worlds: “I don’t act fully one culture, but more of a mixture. Even when I’m living in America I show a lot of my Arabian culture. When I’m in Saudi Arabia, I show my American side.”

At Carlow, Alkannan is focusing on perfusion technology. A perfusionist operates the machine that circulates blood through a patient’s body during open-heart surgery, keeping the patient alive when there isn’t a heart to do so.

Alkannan’s fascination with perfusion began when she observed open-heart surgery during a high-school field trip.

“You don’t see the person they’re operating on, you just see the heart,” says Alkannan. “It’s really cool.”


By James Foreman