Saudi Arabia: What is the Saudi Connection to Cookeville, Tennessee?

It is a pleasure for American Bedu to hold a second interview with Patrick Ryan of SUSRIS.  However this particular interview is not about SUSRIS but rather Pat’s activities and engagement with his local Rotary Club in Cookeville, Tennessee.  Of course there is also a Saudi connection too which Pat graciously shares…

Thank you, Pat, for this opportunity to interview you again on American Bedu!  I understand that in addition to editing the SUSRIS newsletters, you are also kept very busy with your local Rotary Club in Tennessee.    For those readers who may not be familiar with the Rotary Clubs, can you explain what the Rotary is? What kinds of activities and/or projects is the Cookeville Rotary involved in?

Thanks, Carol for the chance to talk with your American Bedu readers again.  Yours is a terrific blog and I’m honored to be asked to share news through it.

Rotary is a service organization, the world’s oldest and largest, over 1.2 million members in 33,000 clubs, in over 200 countries and territories.  Some of your readers may have seen the Rotary sprocket emblem among the collection of civic organization signs as they drive in and out of towns around the world, advertising when and where the local club meets.  That was my only connection with Rotary, seeing the road signs, until I settled in Tennessee after a career in the Navy. I got familiar with Rotary and joined the Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club where I learned more about its mission of “Service above Self” in the areas of community, vocational and international service.

Through the Rotary International network and the Rotary Foundation the individual clubs are able to make a profound difference in their communities and the world.  For example, Rotarians have been at the forefront of eradicating polio since 1985.  Then, there were 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries.  Today there are only four endemic countries battling polio and there is genuine hope that it will be eradicated, but also fear that there will be 10 million children paralyzed in the next 40 years if the world fails to do the job.  So on top of the $5 billion global investment in eradication, much of it on the shoulders of Rotarians, clubs are working hard to meet a challenge by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for money to wipe out polio.  They have generously put up $355 million dollars to challenge Rotary to raise $200 million by June 2012.  Money raised so far in the challenge is already going toward polio eradication.

But Rotary is more than polio.  There are programs to enhance global understanding and peace.  Rotary Foundation grants to humanitarian projects, disaster relief, international student and young professional exchanges, student “ambassadorial” scholarships and a lot more.  At the club level, in our club for instance, we are involved in humanitarian work in Africa.  With other Tennessee clubs we provide hands on support and financing to build water wells to bring clean water to the area around Ateiku, Ghana as well as school literacy projects and medical clinics.  I was lucky to get to go to Ateiku a little over a year ago and see what can be accomplished by a few average folks from a small Tennessee town, through the avenue of Rotary, to make a difference. It was incredible.  The work is chronicled on the web site and we’ll be going back in June to bring a medical support mission and follow up on the water well project and a new drilling rig our club helped to buy.

Rotary is not just international good works.  Clubs are helping in their own communities too.  The Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club has adopted a school in our town, the alternative school that works with students who have had difficulties in mainstream educational situations.  We help with school resources, like building a new library, as well as directly mentoring students and supporting the staff.  We also have a program to provide dictionaries to every 3rd grader in the county, personal copies that they keep and use as they move up through their school years.  These are just a few things Rotarians do.  We also focus on fellowship and building goodwill among members and the community.  It’s a great organization and I’d encourage anyone to check out their local club if they live in a country that has Rotary.

How many members does the local Rotary in Cookeville, Tennessee have?  How long have you been a member?

We have about 65 members from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, school teachers, realtors, ministers, and so forth.  I’ve been a member since 2001 when we relocated to Cookeville.

Now I understand that the Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club also has a connection to Saudi Arabia!  Can you explain more about that connection to American Bedu readers?

This year for the second annual International Night the club has chosen Saudi Arabia as the honored country.  For over 20 years our club relied on a golf tournament each September to raise funds for our programs.  As our commitment to new efforts increased – the Rotary Polio Challenge, and the expense to do humanitarian work in Ghana – we created a new fundraising project.  We chose to sponsor a mid-Winter dinner that served as a major fund raising event.  But it is more than that.  By choosing to honor a country we have a chance to meet the objective of increasing understanding about the world, an important element of Rotary.  The event includes food, speakers and entertainment from the honored country.  Last year, the inaugural event, we chose India and had a fabulous evening, with about 300 people attending to support the fund raising – which went toward polio eradication and other Rotary international, humanitarian efforts – and to enjoy great food, fellowship, conversation and a cultural program of dancing by Indian students from Tennessee Tech University here in Cookeville.

How did the concept of the International Rotary Night which features Saudi Arabia come up?

With the success of International Night last year – both in support of polio eradication and international awareness – we were encouraged to do it again, but the question was which country to honor.  With my interests in international affairs – I also serve as volunteer President of the Tennessee World Affairs Council – I was asked to work on the committee to develop the program.  Fortunately we have a terrific Saudi Students Club here in Cookeville at Tennessee Tech University.  There are about 150 students here as part of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program.  For a number of years they have worked hard to do outreach in the community through events like the Tennessee Tech Window on the World Festival, school visits and so forth, and some of the students took advantage of World Affairs Council programs to learn more about America.  For example, they spent the Election 2008 evening at the Council office watching the Presidential vote count and learning about the Electoral College.  So it was a good match up to get them involved in this year’s International Night.

Who can attend this function?  Must he or she first be a Rotary member?

Anyone can attend International Night.  We have 300 seats to fill on January 29th so we can raise funds for our international programs and so 300 people from our area and some coming from distances, can enjoy a special evening, building bridges with our friends in the Saudi Students Club and having some great food and entertainment.

What kind of special attractions will be featured?  Will attendees get to sample any traditional Saudi food?

It will be a very special night.  We have been blessed to have two special visiting speakers join us.  Dr. Mody Alkhalaf, Ph.D., who serves as the Director of Social and Cultural Affairs at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington and Barbara Ferguson, the Washington Bureau Chief of Arab News are our main speakers.  I’ve had the pleasure of hearing both of these women speaking at events before and I’m sure they will provide wonderful keynote remarks to our audience who are anxious to learn more about Saudi Arabia and its people, history, and culture.

The Saudi Students Club has taken the lead in organizing the menu for the evening and we’re looking forward to a wide selection of very tasty food, some will come from their favorite local restaurants and some items will be homemade by the students and families.  We’re also looking forward to the other touches that will make the evening very special, very Saudi, in terms of hospitality and graciousness.  The students will be serving Saudi coffee, tea, dates and so forth.

Lastly, the students will be entertaining after dinner with traditional dances.  I’ve seen their performance the last couple of years at Tennessee Tech festivals and I’m looking forward to sharing all of these facets of Saudi culture and life with our friends in Cookeville who, at this point, know little about the Kingdom.

There’s a lot more about the agenda, honored country, and purposes of International Night at the Cookeville Breakfast Rotary web site,

Cookeville would probably be viewed by many Americans as being in a rural area without the trappings of the big cities of the East and West Coasts.  Therefore how have the Saudi community and Cookeville residents merged together?

Cookeville is in the “country” but it is probably more diverse and progressive than similarly situated communities in the rural south.  Tennessee Tech University is an anchor for the community and attracts a broad base of students including many international studies.  The campus, located in the city, is an important part of life in our community – the symphony, college sports, festivals and so forth – and the Saudi Arabian students fit in with the Cookeville community alongside all of the other students who come to campus from around Tennessee, around the United States and around the World.  TTU has a wonderful international hosting program where families in town partner with individual students to give them “American experiences” – joining holiday celebrations and family get-togethers, going shopping or to other activities.  So there is a close connection between Cookeville residents and the Tech students.

In your experience, what has been the general reaction of Cookeville residents when they meet members of the Saudi community?

One of the wonderful aspects of having international students, like our Saudi student friends, in town is that people here – who may not have had an opportunity to travel abroad and learn about foreign customs and lifestyles – get a chance to meet people from other countries and circumstances and, in a one-on-one fashion, get to know something about the world through their eyes.  Of course there are stereotypes that exist, especially given the tone of some media outlets in America.  However, in my experience once people sit and break bread together, or experience a cultural outreach program where they can meet and talk together, it is extremely difficult to avoid negative stereotypes from being overcome.

Additionally, what have been the reactions of the Saudis who are living in Cookeville?  Do they consider Cookeville and its people to be mainstream America?

I’ve found the Saudi students at TTU to have had extremely positive attitudes about their time at school and their residency in Tennessee.  The Saudi Students Club is a tremendous resource for new students to become familiar with life on campus and in the community.  Also the University has orientation programs including the community hosting program I mentioned.  I’m constantly impressed that, given the difficulties a young person could conceivably encounter moving into college life let alone in a different country and different culture, there have been such smooth accommodations.  Our Saudi students here get to see other aspects of America. They travel widely during academic breaks, for sightseeing to Florida and other popular tourist destinations, as well as to other large and small cities and towns around the country to visit with their scholarship program colleagues.  But in terms of getting to know Tennesseans I think the students probably find that people here are generally conservative — not flamboyant or pompous — attentive to their faith, committed to their families, generous and very hospitable – all traits we know our Saudi Arabian friends are known for.  So I think for the most part they are comfortable here.

How much interaction is there between the Saudi community and local residents?

I think the students get out into the community as much as any other American and international students.  They are very involved in outreach work, which we hope to expand through a Tennessee World Affairs Council international student program – like the Rotary International Night.  The program the Saudi students put on at TTU’s Window on the World ( is exceptional and very well received by local residents.

What seem to be the most popular activities of the Saudis who reside in or near Cookeville?

It is probably a toss up between playing soccer – I’m always getting Facebook invitations to watch the games – and hanging out at Starbucks in town.  I think they’re proud of their prowess at both soccer and coffee drinking.

What have been the typical misperceptions each community has had of the other?

I don’t sense any misperceptions or tension between people in our community and the Saudi students at TTU.  To be sure there are people whose worldview is shaped by slanted media presentations, who don’t get to the facts beyond the stories, but I think their perceptions are shaped about some larger image or stereotype about the “other” that they don’t see or know.  I don’t think the misperceptions stand up well to personal interactions.  I wouldn’t go beyond that but it’s a good question that I’ll explore further with our Saudi friends and people in the community.

How do you think impressions of America and Saudi Arabia have changed on the part of Cookeville residents and those from the Saudi community?

I believe impressions change very positively once there is a personal connection.  Without that exposure there’s probably not a lot of thought given to it.  For the most part I believe the Saudi students at TTU are exceptional ambassadors for the Kingdom.

In your view, what do you believe are the best experiences of America Saudi students receive by choosing to study in or near Cookeville?

First of all, the Saudi students at Tennessee Tech are getting a world-class education, probably not what you might expect to hear about a University in a small town in the South.  But if you check any of the rating sources, like U.S. News & World Report, TTU is a top-notch school, especially for engineering students.  It’s a beautiful campus with many activities.  Nashville, “Music City, USA,” is about an hour away to the west and the Great Smoky Mountains are about an hour to the east.  There are several state parks within a half hour drive of Cookeville so there are plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities available.  A town like Cookeville has a lot to offer international students, especially our Saudi friends, while they pursue their college studies.  The town is routinely on lists of most-livable, most affordable, small towns in America, and there’s still that sense of Southern charm, an observation permitted to me as a native New Yorker.

Are there any additional comments you’d like to make, Pat?

Thanks again, Carol, for the chance to share this story with your readers.  My last comment would be that the International Night Program and future outreach programs with the Saudi students here, is being supported by the Tennessee World Affairs Council.  The Council is a non profit organization that relies on donations to exist.  So if any of your readers want to support “building bridges” between Americans and Saudi Arabians at the Small Town, USA level may they please consider making a contribution to this outreach program at

Thank you for this interview.  American Bedu anticipates interviewing some of Cookeville’s residents on their reactions and experiences in getting to meet some of the Saudi students who have become part of the community.  She will also have interviews with Saudi students who live near Cookeville at a later date.  Stay tuned!


13 Responses

  1. How cool I am from the town right by Cookeville in TN. All of my friends went to Tech and I know many people there now. Its nice to see the people getting to know more about Saudi 🙂

  2. Quote: To be sure there are people whose worldview is shaped by slanted media presentations, who don’t get to the facts beyond the stories, but I think their perceptions are shaped about some larger image or stereotype about the “other” that they don’t see or know. I don’t think the misperceptions stand up well to personal interactions.

    So, Patrick, in other words, Americans are ignorant and don’t really know the facts. Is that all of us, or just some? I have been to these type of cultural events and they are, for the most part, harmless and fun. The problem is that when asked about Islam, Saudi’s and Arabs will invariably start with the “you are ignorant” routine followed by the “out of context, its only some” excuses.

    I am not talking about ‘perceptions’, but the real world, where people either share common values or they do not. Drinking coffee or playing football (not ‘soccer’) provides no moral content to judge a person. I doubt very much that Saudis, most saudis, even those nice ones you write about, share our values.

    It should be obvious to all by now that “interactions’ between Muslims and non-Muslims, in large numbers, will result in conflict because of the differences in values (Note I said “large numbers” because with personal encounters it can be different). These same nice, sweet Saudis you have mentioned have doubtless grown up listening to Imams demonizing non-Muslims, they have read Quranic texts condemning us to hell for 137 different reasons, they have read textbooks and listened to media reports that have little good to say about us – and you basically dismiss all this as ‘misperceptions’? These same Muslims will go back to SA and not lift a finger or say a word to contradict the malicious portrayal of non-Muslims in mosques, media and schools (and yes, I am aware of the recent request by SA authorities to tone down the vile sermons about non-Muslims – That is only for show).

    Patrick, until there is real change and people are ready to discuss fundamental issues, these “International day” events have all the moral and intellectual content of a puppet show.

    While exploring, I would like you to 1. consider the effects of the constant denigration of non-Muslims in Islamic texts on this relationship (remember, these saudis are the same people that are financing and spreading a version of islam that is, hum, dub, rather unkind to non-Muslims – in case you didn’t know) , and 2. Ask Saudis/ Muslims why they always make silly excuses and blame others for any issues between us.

    Sorry, Carol, but I just got back from a long, hard trip, and I am in a pissy mood and so here am I again raining on the parade.

  3. has any muslim/arab done anything to you ever?

  4. @jay
    sorry, that last post is directed to jay

  5. @jay
    then why are these same people getting married to the same people you claim are brought up to so called hate them….you are full of yourself/crap, boy. there must be something else really bothering you?yuck

  6. […] Originally posted at: HERE Saudi Arabia: What is the Connection to Cookeville, Tennessee […]

  7. My Grandpa bought a small farm in Putman county for my Grandma and his three girls. White County is adjesent to Putman County. Sparta and Cookeville are about 20 minutes of each other. Both counties were known as farming counties. White County was a major producer of the cash crop called tobacco. I always loved going back to see where my Mother was raised. My Mom and Aunt both went to TN Tech. Mennonite’s lived in the nearby hills. We would drive up there and buy their wonderful, home-made backed goods. My Grandmother was a school teacher so learning was very important. We were curious about the Amish and their chosen lifestyle of no electricity, or motor cars. My Daddy was from White county and met my Mom while she was in College. I love Cookeville. I can see why the community would open their hearts to other cultures. It is the “Bible belt though.” All my Dad’s family are of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. They settled in Estern TN in the 1800’s. Thanks for sharing Carol.

  8. @Gabrielle,

    How interesting to hear more about the history of the Cookeville area. Now it also makes me even more curious to know about the relationships and experiences of Cookeville residents and Saudi students.

  9. […] Saudi Arabia: What is the Saudi Connection to Cookeville, Tennessee? – American Bedu Blog […]

  10. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog post, Carol! I have been a member of four different Rotary Clubs and on the board of one of them.

    I love to think of Rotarians as people united in rolling up their sleeves all over the world to solve a common problem. Could you get a group of people thinking bigger than ”let’s all do our bit and conquer polio together.” That work is almost done and then we’ll be on to the next grand and glorious challenge.

    Kudos to Patrick and his club for their wonderfully strategic fundraising night that taught Americans about Saudi, Saudis about Americans, and raised funds at the same time.

  11. Gia, yes, they have threatened me, not that I care, and also my family, which irritates me and shows how vile these people are. What kind of people associates themselves to those who would attack women and children because some old man says things they don’t like? What kind of people worship a god and prophet that what are so impotent that they need people to castigate those who insult them? Don’t Muslims have any faith at all in Allah to punish blasphemers? Not much of a god is she!

    I stand by my statement. I do not believe that serious, dedicated Muslims can live in peace with other people – Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, jews, gays, Rotarians, and so on. I think current events plainly confirm this. The only qualifier to that statement is “in numbers” – a few Muslims won’t matter but as soon as Muslims become numerous, they immediately begin to make demands and insist that we respect them – while they respect nothing except their ideology and prophet. They leave Islamic countries because of the foul conditions they have contributed to and then immediately seek to impose those same values that led to the problems in Islamic societies.

    Let me be very clear. Without freedom of speech you cannot have an open, fair, democratic society. This includes to right to voice opinions that others may not like including about islam, Allah, the Quran and Mohammad. In case you don’t know, even a casual reading of the Quran and hadith will bring up serious moral issues relating to discrimination and violence, yet Muslims – even the so-called moderates – will not address these issues. To make matters worse, they pretend these do not exist and demand that we not remind them of those problems or raise questions as to their own actions.

    A cultural event is a nice thing, but I don’t believe it serves the common good by pretending that some people – in this case, Saudis – have no responsibility for malevolent actions done by Muslims and by their country. As stated above, Saudi Arabia is a producer and exporter of a doctrine that insults and harms others. Eating and drinking and watching traditional dances with Saudis are fine, but somebody needs to remind them that all is not well and they have a burden to carry. Let’s not pretend that Saudi students in Tennessee have no moral culpability for the teachings and practice of a religion they espouse.

    Gia, I hope you understand my position. Yes there are good Muslims but they are the ones that will acknowledge shortcomings in Islam, the Quran and in the teachings and life of Mohammad. They do not make excuses and they don’t blame anybody and everybody for their problems. These are usually the quiet types that keep their religion to themselves and, in my opinion, live by their own moral code and not that of their religion.

    Unfortunately, very few Muslims seem to be able to do this, and when this matter is openly debated, most show a serious lack of knowledge of their own faith and its history, and then cover this ignorance behind the sword of antagonism.

    I think bad times are coming and I blame Muslims for this because they do nothing to change they way they treat others. What I think of Muslims or what they have done to me mean absolutely nothing in the big context of things. I think we have a problem and good people will get hurt. I could be wrong about this, which wouldn’t bother me a bit, but I don’t think so. I think this issue is morally significant enough so that if I believe this to be true, I should speak out. Likewise, if you believe me to be an old fool saying stupid, wrong things that will hurt people, you should voice that opinion and point out my errors. And don’t worry, I can handle contrary opinions just fine.

    You take care

  12. I agree with Jay. I believe that all these saudi students should be sent home packing. Not only they are threat to our women and our way of life,

    Most importantly, they are potential terrorists. Lest not forget 9/11 !!!!

  13. jay kactuz , and Harry Guggen

    Thank you for your comments about Me and My friends.We Don’t came to USA to Change your way of life or to hurt you as what you just did to my felling .We came here to gain Knowledge and deliver peace ,then go back home , After that we can find good stores to tell our kid in the future how nice the people here in US.
    I wish I did not come cross this page And read what you wrote .I was thinking Every body in US just peace maker as my Americana friends who I really like and wish them the best on there life just like my wishes to my own brother and sisters.
    please read this and feel peace . see the links

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