Though none of them is eligible to vote in a U.S. election, the 30 or so students who crowded into a University City Boulevard classroom were eager to hear Sam Rasoul share his experiences as a state legislator.
The students, who are enrolled at the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute, hail from such countries as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, China, South Korea, Turkey, and Brazil. They are here to improve their English skills and learn more about American history and culture.
Speakers like Rasoul help them gain a greater understanding of U.S. society, said instructor Bonnie Sumner, who invited Rasoul to address the students.
“American politics is one of the things we talk about in our daily lives — like sports or movies,” said Ibrahim Hamdan, a student from Saudi Arabia. “As important as learning English, it’s also important to learn about American culture so we can fit in with any conversation — engage with other people.”
For his part, Rasoul, who represents Roanoke in the Virginia General Assembly, said he is always eager to shine light on the process of the American democratic system. “I feel like it’s part of my personal mission to show people that there is a different way of approaching politics.”
He told the students: “I’m the child of immigrants. To be an elected official in the most powerful country in the world is really living the American dream.”
He said that in many countries, as a minority, he would not have an opportunity to run for office and be taken seriously. “But here — even though it is extremely difficult for me — it’s possible.”
Rasoul was born in Ohio. His family emigrated to the U.S. from the Palestinian territories.
He offered a history lesson about the Virginia General Assembly, considered the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World, as well as a civics lesson about state-level politics.
A Democrat who took office in 2014, Rasoul had some pointed criticism of his own party.
“After the November election, I became very vocal about how I feel my party is failing the American people,” he said. “We’re not doing enough to connect with people of all walks of life.”
Politics is about building relationships, and “the Democratic Party does not have a relationship with people,” he said.
“One of the things I took away was how divided both parties really are,” said student Faisal Al-Hamdan of Saudi Arabia. “It’s not just black-and-white. Things are a lot more complicated.”
Asked about President Donald Trump’s recent executive order temporarily blocking entry to the U.S. for travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries and all refugees, Rasoul said the president has the right to keep people out of the country if he feels doing so will protect the country.
But, Rasoul said, “what he does not have a right to do — what isn’t American — is any sort of religious test. That goes against everything our country stands for.”
Rasoul said he hopes international students will take what they learn here back home.
“I think it plays well to the tapestry of America to have all kinds of people from different walks of life [at Virginia Tech]. ... That’s what makes America such a great country," he said. "That’s why we’re very appreciative of the system of government that we have here. Democracy is not a destination; it’s a process. And it’s never-ending. We’re constantly fighting for a better democracy. It’s great that they can see that."
The Language and Culture Institute, part of Outreach and International Affairs, recruits students internationally on behalf of the university and prepares international students for admission to Virginia Tech and other U.S. universities. In 2016, its recruiters spent more than 300 days on the road in more than 15 countries.