Said Al Barumi is following in the footsteps of his father, an engineer at a petroleum company in Oman, a Middle Eastern country on the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
The 25th-largest oil-producing country in the world, Oman, which is roughly 10 percent larger in geographic size than Nebraska, needs engineers who understand the inner workings of the rigs bobbing above the desert sands.
But Al Barumi’s path to become a mechanical engineer is dramatically different than that of his father. A junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Engineering, Al Barumi is the first in his family to seek a college degree in the United States.
“I love my life here,” said Al Barumi, 22. “I’ve become more independent, I’m socializing more, the people on campus are friendly and helpful. This feels like home. If I’m going to graduate and go back home, an engineering degree is the best way to go.”
Al Barumi is among a growing community of Omanis at NU, which now make up the third-largest population of international students enrolled across the university system.
Only China and India — traditional anchors for international students in Nebraska, as well as the U.S. at large — enrolled more students at NU this year, said Steven Duke, the university's assistant vice president for global strategy and international initiatives.
Last semester, there were 319 Omani students, roughly two-thirds of them male, enrolled across the university system, including 192 at UNL. That outpaces the numbers of students from Vietnam (142), Rwanda (112), Iran (95), South Korea (85) and Mexico (70).
Another 99 Omani students are enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha this year, Duke said, while 25 mostly freshmen and sophomores are studying at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
NU leaders reached out to the Omani sultanate earlier this decade to partner on projects centered on water, agriculture and education. Around the same time as the so-called "Omani spring" in 2011, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said began offering tuition subsidies for the country's best students to attend U.S. universities.
The sultan also agreed to provide students with funds to pay for a year of English language immersion, Duke said.
The blossoming relationship is evident in the data. No Omani students were reported in UNL's 2011 census, but by 2012, 14 students were enrolled in Lincoln.
By 2013, there were 58 Omani students at UNL. Over the next three years, that number grew to 85, then 142 and finally 173 at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, UNL reported.
Duke said the Omani students view an American education, particularly at NU, as a privilege.
“They have gone through a very competitive process in Oman to apply for this scholarship, so there is a lot of pressure to do well and go back to help build their country," he said.
Abdulmajeed Al Naabi, 21, a sophomore chemical engineering major who like Al Barumi wants to work in Oman’s oil and gas industry, said UNL has made him a better English speaker while also allowing him to work toward his career goals.
Where once the difference between his Arabic and English “was as far as the earth and the moon,” Al Naabi said he was able to get a job working in his dormitory’s convenience store as a cashier. Getting outside of his comfort zone helped him bridge the language gap, meet new people, and begin to feel more at home in Lincoln.
Al Naabi has also worked to help mentor other students at UNL while also participating in “Omani Night,” an event put on by Omani students to show off their country’s culture and cuisine to Lincoln.
“This is a good place to live, it’s a good place to study,” he said. “It’s not expensive, it’s safe and there are solid educational offerings.”
Duke said like Al Barumi and Al Naabi, most of the Omani students enrolled at NU are pursuing engineering degrees. Others are pursuing degrees in business, computer science, or geology and earth science — practical experiences in order to land steady jobs back home. The scholarship does not require them to return to their home country.
Musallam Mohammed Said Almashali is something of an outlier.
The UNO student is majoring in international studies — a passion he developed as a boy listening to family and friends discuss and argue politics and international news, despite his engineer father’s efforts to get him to follow suit.
“I thought a lot about that, and finally, I found each person should do what he or she loves,” he said. “When you do something you love, you will succeed and inspire people.”
Almashali said he hopes to one day return to Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, as a policy analyst or adviser. He said he believes the skills he’s learning in Nebraska will put him in a unique position to find employment.
Each of the three Omani students are the first in their families to attend college in the U.S., but each of them said they are also passing on word to friends and family back home about the state with roughly half the population as their home country.
At a college fair in the capital city of Muscat last year, Duke said NU recruiters spoke to more than 2,000 interested Omani students over a three-day period. Other American universities attracted only a trickle of students during that time, he added.
“We were easily the most important American university there in terms of the number of students who wanted to speak with us,” he said. “Nebraska has brand recognition in Oman.”