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Tunisian Student First to Receive Scholarship through New UW Program

October 16, 2012
Man ascending stairs
Mhamed Samet walks to a biology class in the University of Wyoming Classroom Building. He is the first student to attend UW with help from a new scholarship program exclusively for students from Tunisia. (UW Photo)

Mhamed Samet came from Tunisia to Wyoming to swim.

Don’t scratch your head and wonder why, though. Samet, the first student to attend the University of Wyoming with help from a new scholarship program exclusively for students from Tunisia, is training to be a sprinter on the Cowboys swim team.

For those who don’t consider Tunisia to be a hotbed for swimming, Samet quickly points out that one of his fellow countrymen, Ous Mellouli, was a double medal winner at the recent London Olympics, taking gold in the grueling 10-kilometer race and earning a bronze in the 1,500-meter freestyle.

An excellent swimmer in high school, Samet says competing in the pool wasn’t the only reason he applied for the new Tunisian Student Program scholarship, developed jointly by the state of Wyoming and The Republic of Tunisia. Samet says he wanted an opportunity to enjoy the experience of obtaining a college education in the United States. His father had graduated from Oregon State.

“He said that attending an American university is a unique experience, and I wanted to try it,” Samet says. Additionally, he was aware of UW’s strong reputation in his chosen field, chemical engineering, and the scholarship availability solidified his decision to come to Wyoming.

UW offered the lifestyle choices he was seeking, too.

“I was raised in a rural environment. I’m a bit of an outdoorsman,” he says with a smile. “I like hiking and biking, and training at high altitude will help my swimming performance.”

So far, it’s all worked out for the best.

“At first, I was a bit shy in discussion classes but, as I got used to it, I started participating in the discussions. I give feedback to the group,” he says. “Being active in class is not that hard to do. The teachers are great; they help us in class and encourage participation.”

Since arriving at UW, he heard about the 50 or so protesters who burned American flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia's capital as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

“It was an unfortunate event -- it’s definitely an act of extremism,” Samet says. “There are some extremists in Tunisia, but it’s a minority that does some very stupid things.”

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Samet is considering graduate school, perhaps at the University of Calgary in Canada. He plans a career in industry.

UW’s new Tunisian Student Program is a result of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tunisia in spring 2011, when then-Prime Minister Caid Essebsi requested a U.S. degree program for Tunisian students at reduced costs. That fall, U.S.  Ambassador to Tunisia Gordon Gray visited Wyoming, meeting with Gov. Matt Mead and members of the Wyoming Legislature, and also with several UW faculty and administrators.

Gray’s visit was coordinated through a National Guard partnership program that paired Wyoming's National Guard with Tunisia to demonstrate the effectiveness of having a civilian military and the importance of civilian control of the military. The Wyoming National Guard began a number of activities with the Tunisian military, and Tunisian military personnel met with Wyoming business and political leaders during visits to the state.

Ambassador Gray discussed with UW the possibility of helping the United States follow up on the new Tunisian government’s proposal for the U.S. to assist in providing greater access to higher education for students from Tunisia. Samet was among the first group to apply for the assistance.

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