My "Almost" Brush with Terrorists

My “Almost” Brush with Terrorists


By Elton Camp


            That a middle-level college administrator in a rural Alabama community college could have an encounter with foreign terrorists seemed to me, in those pre-9/11 days, to be impossible.  What could we have that would interest them?  I couldn’t name any city in Saudi Arabia except its capital and that was only because of Alex Trebek and “Jeopardy!”  That a person there, harboring malicious intent, would even know of the existence of a small college in a country town in the South seemed unlikely in the extreme.  Yet, then came “The Letter.”


            For those unfamiliar with “community colleges,” I’ll supply just enough background information to help understand what happened.  Although there are dormitories, most students live at home and commute.  These institutions are designed to serve a relatively small area.  There are two general divisions of a community college:  university transfer and occupational programs that are not designed for transfer.  Student recruitment isn’t done outside the state-assigned territory.  If other qualified students (high school graduate and no serious criminal record) apply, they are normally accepted due to the philosophy of “open door admission.” 


“The Letter” was about one of the occupational programs, the flight school.  A certificate program, it was designed to train students to fly airplanes.  The college, thanks to a powerful politician, had access to one of the longest landing strips in the state, owned planes, and had a hangar with classrooms.  Qualified faculty had a record of success in producing pilots. 


The flight school had been in a serious enrollment nosedive and wasn’t currently accepting students since it was in imminent danger of being permanently closed.  Its faculty barely hung on by shifting to its other program of aircraft maintenance.  There was real possibility that they would lose their jobs and the college, for all time, forfeit bragging rights about one of the few flight programs in the State.  “The Letter” sought information about enrollment of several students—a bonanza for the struggling program.  On-campus housing and food services were essential, they said.  Such an influx of students promised to revive the flight school for at least a year.  It was easy to understand the excitement of the occupational faculty.  But there was a problem.  A written proposal to the group of prospective students was needed and quickly.  That’s how I came to be involved. 


In a small institution, one often must wear multiple hats.  Although I was from the academic side of the house, it was my responsibility as “assistant dean of instruction” to help any program recruit students.  I am one of those persons who can grind out impressive-looking documents with little advance notice.  My supervisor cautioned, “Those students they are trying to get are from Saudi Arabia.” 


The warning didn’t bring the astonishment that one might expect in view of the comments above about the mission of a community college.  Those of us who had been around a long time had been through a similar experience a number of years previously.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, we had been deluged by applicants, all male, from various Muslim countries.  Nothing in our experience had prepared us for such an influx.  Since they met the existing criteria and seemed to have unlimited funding, there seemed to be no basis to deny them admission.  In view of Alabama’s past, the last thing we wanted was a charge of “racism.”  We let them enter in droves.  At least “droves” compared to our total enrollment. 


Imagine our chagrin when we discovered that we had accepted as students men who typically couldn’t read, write, understand, or speak English effectively.  It was far out of line with our traditional role as a teaching institution.  To enroll such students wasn’t reasonable and most surely not in their best interest.  We were caught off-guard, but we weren’t “stupid.”  We learned how to stem the tide in a way that was legal, effective and ethical. 


The letters TOEFL had previously meant nothing to us.  We found that universities who routinely admit foreign students used it to good effect.  The abbreviation is for “Test of  English as a Foreign Language.”  We quickly adopted required scores in keeping with what is sometimes called “good practice in higher education.” 


We had, unbeknownst to us, become a “dumping ground” for foreign students who couldn’t meet university requirements.  Our faculty grumbled about what appeared to be “academic dishonesty” in the use of books during tests that the students indignantly swore were dictionaries.  To prove otherwise was difficult and fraught with danger of being accused of discrimination.  After a few terms with us, if they somehow managed to accumulate enough credits, the students might be able to work around university admission standards as “transfer students.”


After adoption of TOEFL standards, unqualified foreign students virtually disappeared from our campus.  One disgruntled applicant informed us frankly that if he had known of the requirement, he certainly wouldn’t have bothered with such a minor college as ours. 


Once adopted, the TOEFL standards took on a permanent life in the college catalog.  Most likely, this is what saved us from catastrophe related to “The Letter.” 


            While I made a sincere effort to help recruit the students to our failing flight school, I couldn’t hide the full requirements for admission.  We never heard from the Saudis again. 


            It was after 9/11, when I read of the disgrace of small, out-of-the-way institutions, similar to ours, that had unknowingly trained the highjackers of 911 that I had an epiphany.  What we escaped dawned on me in a horrifying flash.  Were the names of those infamous pilots among our prospective students?  I suspect that they were, but can never know for certain.  Such records are regularly shredded, not to hide anything, but due to limited storage space. 


            Although I can’t prove it to be true, the experience gives me an exciting story to tell about my “almost” brush with terrorists. 

Elton4562   Elton4562 wrote
on 5/25/2010 6:49:09 PM
Hello Henrietta, As usual, thanks for your well-thought-out comments. Please feel free to take the idea and write a story from it if you wish. Elton

Henrietta   Henrietta wrote
on 5/25/2010 2:31:37 PM
I was fascinated by this article. My writer's imagination immediately began a short story at least, possibly a novel from this interlude in your life. What an experience!!!!! A great example of 'Hindsight'. Thanks for sharing.

Special Interest
writing Elton4562

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A "fifteen minutes of fame" I am grateful to have escaped.