From underneath her black hijab and abaya, American Laurel McCormack saw life from the eyes of a Saudi Arabian woman.
She saw other women under the same head scarfs and cloaks as university students, doctors and businesswomen with high aspirations like her own.
Life under the black fabric didn’t have quite the feel that she had imagined.
“We came in with some misconceptions and this feeling that they were all going to be really oppressed,” McCormack said.
The student trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia allowed the Mercer University junior from Forsyth County to form her own ideas of the kingdom and its culture firsthand.
McCormack, a 2008 graduate of Forsyth Central High, said the experience was contrary to the turmoil Americans usually see in the news.
“You don’t see the human side of the Middle East. You don’t see lifestyles stories from the Middle East,” she said. “It’s really hard to put a face to a people.”
The fellowship was offered by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education to increase cultural awareness between the nations.
McCormack, an international affairs major, was one of 10 female American students selected to participate.
Her involvement in Mercer’s Model Arab League earned her a chance to apply, and one of her professors, Eimad Houry, recommended her for a spot on the trip.
“I couldn’t have made a better choice,” Houry said. “In terms of improving relations for people to people ... we couldn’t have picked a better ambassador.”
The trip “deeply impacted” McCormack, Houry said, and he looks forward to her sharing the unique experience with peers through a presentation and an article in the student newspaper.
During a part of winter break, McCormack and the group of women visited three major Saudi cities, including the capital of Riyadh, and along the way visited influential people, universities, hospitals, markets and more.
The trip to the Islamic nation is one that very few Americans will ever take. For McCormack, it was just her second out of the U.S. and first to a non-Christian nation.
“I understood once I got over there why people can be so afraid of really going anywhere foreign, but especially when even the religion is different, when you become a minority in every way,” she said.
“It’s not because it’s hostile, it’s just because it’s completely unknown.”
Those unknowns became familiar and the mysteries unraveled in the short time period of time that McCormack immersed herself in Saudi life.
“Everything that I thought was wrong or really foreign,” McCormack said, “after being there for just two weeks, it made so much more sense.”
Since her student group was all women, they had frequent contact with Saudi women, and especially students their age at universities.
In Saudi Arabia, like America, more women than men receive higher education degrees, but she said the schools are all separated by gender.
McCormack said meeting with women her own age from such a different background left the biggest impression.
She was able to speak freely and connect with the women, discovering they are able to grow within society, though it may be within the confines of cultural norms.
The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia is a popular discussion in Western nations, Houry said, but the reality is different from the docile, subservient female character that Americans often expect.
“The women that Laurel met were very strong-willed, ambitious women,” he said. “As long as they observe the cultural norms, they are able to function in society.”
Houry added that the women are just as much “willing participants” in the culture as the men.
Another notion that McCormack said changed during her visit was the fear of anti-American attitudes. She found quite the opposite.
“It might have been because we were always in big cities, but people were extremely curious and warm,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many gifts I brought back and how much food we ate ... I’m told that Arab hospitality is that way across the region.”
Houry, who is from the Middle East, said McCormack’s experience was quite typical.
The group also got the chance to meet with elite Saudi men and princes, something most Saudis don’t get a chance to do.
McCormack said one man was like the Saudi equivalent of the American Donald Trump.
She gained a new, more positive view of Saudi men as well through those meetings.
Also by receiving an English newspaper each day on the trip, McCormack said she began to understand the Saudi’s frustration with American policies.
Her student group didn’t mingle much with lower or middle income families, she said, which could have changed her experiences. Still, McCormack walked away with an overall new perception.
Underneath the Muslim attire, she saw women like herself, who cared about their families and wanted happiness, peace and understanding.
“Whenever you get to speak to people and visit a place, every time you end up realizing that there are a lot of aspects of humanity that run all over the world,” she said.
“You realize how much you have in common.”