Collegial Conversation - Marie-Claude Svaldi

May 25, 2012

With so many Saudi Arabian students currently studying in the United States, Marie-Claude Svaldi, assistant director, ESL Institutes & Academic Placement Department, graciously agreed to answer questions that were gathered from the field from the ELTA Discussion Forum and the AAIEP (American Association of Intensive English Programs) listserv.

Marie-Claude Svaldi Marie-Claude Svaldi
Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission - Fairfax, VA

Marie-Claude Svaldi started her career in the ESL field in 1987. She graduated with a master's degree in education and English literature from a state university in Beirut, Lebanon, and obtained a Certification in Human Resource Management and a master's degree in project management from Villanova University, PA.

As an ESL specialist, she functioned as a government adviser and project manager for Pearson Education, focusing on the development of the English language in Middle Eastern countries. She successfully implemented 38 programs and directed numerous projects for school boards and Ministries of Education, facilitated workshops and organized multiple training modules to assist with teacher development, and monitored classroom sessions and educational directives in Europe and the Middle East.

She is currently serving as assistant director of the ESL Institutes & Academic Placement Department at SACM, and overseas all ESL Programs as well as academic placement on behalf of all SACM students in the United States.

Could you explain the scholarship requirements and how students are chosen in Saudi Arabia? What is the screening process?

The scholarship programs are divided into different levels based on the level of study completion that the student has concluded.

  1. High School
  2. Bachelor Degree
  3. Master Degree
  4. PhD

Regardless of the level, the student must show proof of the following prior to being eligible for the scholarship:

  • A fairly high GPA in his last level of study.
  • Pass an Ability Test (Arabic version of an SAT)
  • Go through an oral interview process in one of the large cities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

How are ESL schools selected to be on the "Approved ESL Program List"? Are there certain requirements? Is there an application process?

Since January 2011, the ESL department created a list of criteria and requirements by which ESL programs are approved and ranked.

The list is as follows:


Is the ESL program:

  1. A university-based program
  2. Accredited by ACCET
  3. Accredited by CEA
  4. Accredited by another accrediting body
  5. A member of AAIEP
  6. SEVIS approved for I-20 issuance
  7. Offering in class instruction of minimum 20 hours, maximum 30 hours
  8. Utilizing a curriculum that meets standardized testing requirements
  9. Recruiting experienced teaching staff/faculty with MS degree/BS degree/TESOL certified/TESOL experience
  10. Offering/assisting with conditional admission
  11. Waiving the application Fee

Yes, there is an application process and new ESL Programs are sought after on a daily basis to try and increase the number of ESL providers and decrease the number of applicants in any one given ESL Program.

Which types of programs (non-ESL) are not approved by SACM? Is there certain required program criteria?

Toefl and IELTS preparation classes are not approved by the SACM. Based on the above listed Criteria, the SACM expects every approved ESL Program to be fully qualified to prepare the student throughout their tenure at the program for any English Proficiency standardized testing.

Once students have been selected for the scholarship, how do they choose where they will study? What is SACM's role with this decision?

Once selected, students choose their study location based on three factors:

  1. Where there major and degree of study is offered
  2. Where they have family and friends who will assist them initially
  3. Where they actually manage to secure admission and/or conditional admission

The SACM's role is to assist with maintaining an updated list of approved schools, majors, and degrees. We also offer guidance, counseling, and advice on where to go, what is required to fulfill the application requirements, and how to go about securing full or conditional admission.

Is there any in-country preparation for students before they come to the United States regarding U.S. culture? Does SACM offer any cultural orientation in Washington, DC?

Yes, predeparture orientation is offered and there are forums that are held in all the large cities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which allows students to gather in large numbers and attend seminars on education abroad and then the chance to ask and express their concerns and obtain all the necessary details and information regarding their upcoming experience.

Yes, we have a complete orientation tutorial available to all students on the SACM portal. We have equally encouraged private educational agencies to offer presentations and workshops in an attempt to better aid and prepare our scholarship students to embrace the opportunity they are about to embark on.

Can students who are already in the United States at an English language program and are self-pay, apply for a scholarship? Are there special requirements?

Yes, all self-funded students who are currently in the United States are eligible to apply for the scholarship program even if they are still at the ESL level.

They will be recipients of the scholarship under the following circumstances:

  1. If the King offers a grant (Makramah) to all self-funded students.
  2. Once they complete their English requirements and receive a final academic acceptance at an approved school for an approved degree and major.

Who should schools contact when there are questions regarding procedures (i.e., financial guarantee questions, transfers, payments, etc.)?

cont...There is a student portal on the SACM Web site. Are there any plans for creating a school portal to provide details of submitted paperwork, status updates, and when to expect payment?

Schools who need to reach out to the SACM for any of the matters listed above should proceed as follows:

  1. For FG questions, students must request FGs through the SACM portal prior to the expiration of their current FG, and ensure that their FGs are to date and valid for their period of study. However, should the school need any further assistance regarding FGs, the best person to contact is the academic adviser of the student. His/her contact information would be available in the previous/expired FG.
  2. For ESL transfers, all schools are welcome to contact the ESL department for approval confirmation or any other concerns.
  3. For academic transfers, all schools are welcome to reach out to the student's academic adviser for confirmation and processing.
  4. For payments, it is best to contact the financial department. The contact information pertaining to that department is also available on the financial guarantee.
  5. A school portal is in the works; however, a scheduled launch date has not been set as of yet.

Is there a SACM policy manual for schools to help them comply with SACM's procedures?

The SACM is equally in the process of creating a policy manual for schools in an attempt to facilitate the interaction and hope for a more seamless operation for all concerned; school administrations, students, SACM operations.

Are candidates for the SACM scholarship aware of the difficulty of moving from beginner to advanced language proficiency in 18 months?

cont...We have many students who come to our ESL program after using up their language study allotment, but they test into the intermediate level through our ESL placement process.They feel enormous pressure to move into graduate study, and we feel pressured to make exceptions for them because they fear having to interrupt their studies to return to Saudi Arabia for further language study.

It actually depends on the age group that the candidate falls under. The older the students the greater the awareness as to what is mandatory to complete the requirements and push on with their academic studies. At the younger level some students have a hard time initially assessing the importance of the task at hand and how to proceed.

It is worthy of mention that in some cases there are also ESL programs that are not offering rigorous enough curriculums despite their accreditation and status as an approved ESL Program based on the SACM criteria listed above, which is not helping these students accomplish their goals within the allotted timeframe.

Yes, the objective is a tough task, but numerous have successfully accomplished it to date and therefore, the SACM organization has strong faith that where there's a will there's a way and it is up to the individual's commitment to ensure that the allotted time is invested seriously towards accomplishing the language acquisition goal.

Is it possible for a student to study longer than 18 months in an ESL program if they are not ready for the university?

It is only possible for certain students pursuing certain majors such as: LLM, JD, medical degrees as they are authorized to pursue courses such as legal English and medical English to ensure their level of language acquisition will allow them to pursue such demanding fields of study with greater chances of success.

Other training courses such as GRE and GMAT are equally authorized for graduate students preparing for admissions or UG students preparing for a scholarship upgrade from UG to a graduate scholar.

Any other ESL extensions would be at the student's expense.

How does SACM view extensions for ESL study in the United States?

cont...What do they need to see from the student to grant extensions to remain in the ESL program they are enrolled in after they've run out of ESL study monies? Are there specific procedures for asking for an extension of ESL study? Should our academic advisors contact the student's SACM advisor directly or work through the student?

All students enrolled in ESL programs will have to comply with the following steps to secure ESL extensions:

  1. First six months, students have to provide their academic advisers with a TOEFL or IELTS registration for a schedule test date. This will allow them to renew for the next six months.
  2. Second six months, student have to actually pass an IELTS or a TOEFL test and secure a 4.5/5 EILTS score or its equivalent in TOEFL to secure an additional six months' extension.
  3. During the third and last six months, students must work hard to raise their TOEFL/IELTS scores and secure an academic acceptance from an approved school in their field of study.
  4. After the completion of 18 months of ESL, students will not be approved for additional ESL study time to the exception of the above stated items in response to the previous question.

In case of any exceptions, it would be through communication with the student's academic adviser and at the regional director's discretion.

Students are frustrated because it takes them so long to get responses to questions about transfers and Financial Guarantee Letters. What is the turn around time for a response to a request?

cont...What can the school do to help a student whose adviser is not responding to them?

  • Since the implementation of the new SACM Portal all students are kindly requested to communicate with their academic advisers via this tool. The portal offers the students over 77 request options and this number should encompass all or the greatest majority of their needs.
  • A HELP team and email address have also been set up for the students' use in situations where the student's issue is either not on the list of services, or has not been answered and/or resolved.
  • The turnaround time for processing requests such as transfer requests and Financial Guarantees should not exceed the 72 hours provided the student has complied with all the requirements pertaining to that specific request.
  • The school can greatly assist in signaling to the student the need for an FG at least two weeks before the old one expires.
  • The school can equally assist in ensuring the students go through the Portal Tutorial in its entirety, which will ensure the students know what services the portal offers and what each service necessitates to be answered promptly with no delays.

What is considered the most efficient way to handle situations where a student's financial guarantee is pending while they are supposed to be attending class? Pay first, refund later?

  • The most effective way would be to make sure every student has complied with the request requirements and placed the request in due time.
  • The most effective way would be to make sure no student is penalized for FG deliveries and tuition payments as long as the student is in good academic standing; these matters should be strictly handled with SACM without any academic interruptions for the students.
  • The most effective way would be to reach out to the academic adviser/regional director should the matter take too long to be resolved
  • The last resort would be reaching out to Marie-Claude Svaldi within the ESL Institutes & Academic Placement Department

Saudi student absenteeism appears to be a problem for many ESL programs. How are the reports of poor attendance handled by the SACM? Are high levels of absenteeism or latenesspermitted in the Saudi school system?

The answer is no. The SACM has ZERO tolerance for absenteeism or tardiness and all scholarship students know that they are paid to solely attend classes. As such we kindly ask all ESL administrators to advise every Academic Advisor of the student's attendance record as of the third absence within a given study period. We understand that SEVIS requires an 80 percent attendance rate, the SACM demands 100 percent attendance rates from all scholars. Any absence should be due to a medical condition that is excused with an official doctor's note, or due to an immigration matter and none other.

As soon as any academic adviser is notified of three consecutive unexcused absences, he/she will immediately put the student on HOLD. This HOLD status will freeze the students' personal financial account and thus will force the student to take remedial action on his attendance record and ensure he/she are in perfect standing.

Has SACM alerted students that they will not be able to gain admission to the school to which they intended to go and have been working toward admission?

cont...The approved list of schools has suddenly indicated that some institutions are now closed due to high Saudi enrollments, but in some cases the language schools that work with these schools and have students in the pipeline for admission have not been informed. Will SACM assist the language schools to find other programs since they suddenly closed the ones they worked with without any notification to the schools? Will SACM consider each request on a case-by-case basis?

Student saturation rates are without a doubt causing problems on several levels. It is imperative that these numbers decrease to allow the students a better learning environment and a richer cultural experience. Hence, the decision of closing ESL programs, schools and majors emanates.

As the scholarship has reached highly voluminous numbers, it is becoming harder to control the numbers in a timely manner allowing the schools and the students enough time to generate a plan B. That being said, we are continuously learning, developing and improving to try and be a better support system for the students who are facing difficulties securing acceptances due to status changes of schools and majors in light of saturation rates.

SACM academic advisers are working very diligently to assist their students in their respective regions and we ask that the schools and ESL programs join in the effort of assisting us by providing choices and options to the students, which could help rescue the students' future and investment thus far.

In response to the last part of this question, yes, the SACM will consider each request of the kind on a case-by-case basis.

Could you clarify the 'blacklisting' of programs that seems to be happening with the list of universities online that students refer to? The list appears to be very inaccurate in its reporting of the number of Saudis at each university.

We are working very assiduously with the SACM and MOHE IT departments to issue a daily report of accurate numbers in each college, school, and ESL program; this will go a long way in determining black listed programs, majors and degree with sharp accuracy. Once again this is created in an effort to maintain a healthier learning environment and a more diverse cultural experience that we wish our Saudi Arabian Scholars to practice.

SACM has indicated that it will not support enrollment in schools that have high Saudi populations. Are they looking at simply the numbers or the actual success schools are having with their Saudi students?

The SACM is actually looking very closely at both. Maintaining a reasonable number of Saudi Arabian students in a given program is of high importance; however, it is equally important to closely monitor the quality of the program despite a higher than admissible number in some specific programs and schools.

If a university is listed as no longer being approved due to high Saudi enrollments and a student wishes to seek admission to a department that has few or no Saudi students enrolled in that department or program, will SACM consider the application?

cont...For example, if the engineering program for undergraduates at a certain university is "saturated" according to SACM, is a student who is seeking a Master's in Special Education in a department that has only two other Saudi students enrolled denied admission because of over saturation in undergraduate engineering?

No, students seeking acceptance in a given major and specific school will only be denied if that specific major/degree in that particular school is oversaturated.

Any given school that is denied for any and all majors/degrees, would be either saturated in all approved majors/degrees, or the reason would be other than saturation rates.

Would SACM ever consider allowing students to attend community colleges?

THE KASP program has been an eye opener and a learning curve to all involved. As such and over the years, the concept of allowing community college enrollments has become more popular than in previous years. Not only is it a good solution that helps with numbers and saturation rates, but it has also proven to be a bridge of greater success for Saudi Arabian students experiencing "study abroad" for the first time. It allows them to integrate the American academic and cultural worlds on a smaller scale that allows them a healthier and more successful progression. As such the SACM is now encouraging community college enrollments.

The current KASP phase is slated to end in spring 2015. For planning purposes, has there been any indication either that it will end then (or earlier), or that it will be extended?

As of this day there are no clear-cut dates of ending or extending the KASP Program. It is without a doubt the largest cultural program in the world that has thus offered a colossal opportunity for more than 100,000 scholars in the United States alone and we thank everyone for their exerted efforts in making this program the huge success that it currently is.