International Voices

as told to Jan Senn | portraits by Melissa Olson, unless otherwise noted

Everyone has an origin story. The place and circumstances of our birth and childhood have shaped us in ways we may not fully realize until we reflect on them from a distance. And most of us can point to at least one transformative moment or experience that challenged us, inspired change, shifted our viewpoint or turned us in a new direction. Sometimes those experiences move us to travel far from where we grew up—often to further an education, find a job or seek refuge.

Increasingly, individuals from other countries are finding their way to Kent State. In fall 2010, 1,378 international students were enrolled in the university; six years later those numbers have grown to 2,913. Current international students come from 109 countries, the top three being India, China and Saudi Arabia. Many Kent State faculty and staff members also were born outside the United States, but the exact number isn’t known.

In these pages, we introduce you to several of the many international individuals whose cultural heritage and life experiences enrich our campuses. We invited a dozen students, faculty, staff and alumni from Kent State’s international community to sit for a photograph and share their origin story and a transformative experience with us. They are amazing and accomplished people with unique stories to tell.

Some have settled in Ohio. Others are only here for a while. But all have found a home at Kent State University.

Halim El-Dabh photographed by Melissa OlsonHalim El-Dabh, PhD

University Professor Emeritus, Composer

Born & raised: Cairo, Egypt

Origin story: I was the youngest of nine children, and my father had a lot of farms. I used to get scrap metal from the farm and set it up in the wind so it would make noise to keep beetles from damaging the crops. That’s where my interest in sound and noise came from. At age 11, my older brother Bushra took me to King Fouad’s National Conference on Arabic Music in 1932, and I was introduced to lead musicians and composers of the world. They inspired me to become a musician, so I played and composed many works for piano and orchestra.  

Transformative experience: I graduated with a degree in agricultural science and traveled across Egypt helping with development. In the villages I was exposed to traditional music and dance. I also joined Szulc Conservatory of Music in Cairo. In 1949, I was invited by All Saints Cathedral in Cairo to perform some of my piano compositions, including “It is Dark and Damp on the Front.” During the war between Palestine and Israel, I wrote the piece because I felt the real war was inside us. I was shy and didn’t want to perform, because they only played European classics in that cathedral. But my friends dragged me there, and I played. The audience gave me an ovation, and I was so shocked and pleased my heart felt like it was flying above me. Egyptian, French and British newspapers proclaimed me an international composer. I couldn’t believe it! Overnight my life changed—and I received invitations to study and perform in the United States and elsewhere. My first string quartet was premiered at The Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood in 1951. This was followed by my “Fantasia for Egyptian Drum and Orchestra” at the United Nations. 

El-Dabh is a pioneer of electronic music—he is a member of Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, where he composed the first-ever electronic music opera piece. He came to Kent State University in 1969 to teach ethnomusicology. This October, the Martha Graham Dance Company performed a special revival of Act II of “Clytemnestra” at Kent State to honor El-Dabh and his celebrated 1958 musical collaboration with legendary dancer Martha Graham. 

"The Making of 'Clytemnestra'"



"It Is Dark and Damp On the Front" by Halim El-Dabh




Gyorgyi Mihalyi-Jewell photographed by Melissa Olson
Györgyi Mihályi-Jewell, BA ’15

Marketing and Public Relations Communication Specialist, College of Arts and Sciences; Graduate Student, Higher Education Administration

Born & raised: Szeged, Hungary

Origin story: Two years after the Berlin Wall collapsed, I was eleven years old when I started my first job selling newspapers in the train station, the Szeged Vasútállomás, and in local hospitals. I worked to help my mother pay for our food and the electricity bill. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. every morning so that I would be the first to arrive at the printing factory. My fingers smelled like ink all day long. This memory has stayed with me my whole life and, of course, the understanding that hard work and a little gutsy tenacity go a long way.

Transformative experience: I moved to America at the age of 32 and started my life again in a new country and new culture. Two years later, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, making it finally legal to marry my partner, Jessica. I know there has been a long and hard struggle for equal rights in America, but I am so proud of my adopted home for recognizing my love and my family.

A poem about love by Hungarian poet Fodor Ákos




Abdullah Samarin photographed by Melissa Olson
Abdullah Samarin

Sophomore, College of Architecture and Environmental Design; Calligraphy Artist

Born & raised: Medina, Saudi Arabia

Origin story: Growing up in a city where everyone places value on how you treat others and how you can benefit your community taught me to always have a positive outlook on life and look for ways to make it better. Creating buildings that will benefit others is a way I can do this.

Transformative experience: In Medina, there are many magnificent buildings that I experienced in my everyday life, especially the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad. These structures inspired me to become a designer so I could one day create something that would add to the beauty of my surroundings, as well as be a place for people to inhabit.
In 2012, Samarin won a competition to work with French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed on a large-scale mural in Jeddah. The artist’s work blends traditional Arabic calligraphy with graffiti to portray messages of hope and peace. Samarin’s Arabic calligraphy and graffiti appeared on Kent State’s rock last year. 

In 2012, Samarin won a competition to work with French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed on a large-scale mural in Jeddah. The artist’s work blends traditional Arabic calligraphy with graffiti to portray messages of hope and peace. Samarin’s Arabic calligraphy and graffiti appeared on Kent State’s rock last year. 


Left: Abdullah Samarin’s calligraphy on Kent State’s rock. Right: Samarin won a competition to help French-Tunisian artist eL Seed paint the mural “Poetic Ballad” (inspired by the poetry of a young Saudi Arabian poet) in the Old Town of Jeddah. The mural combines graffiti with traditional Arabic calligraphy and was created to change attitudes towards intolerance and extremism.

Yu Lei photographed by Xu Wei Vision StudioYu (Leo) Lei, MFA ’16

Assistant Technical Director / Design Tech Faculty, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Born & raised: Born in Hunan Province, China. Raised in Henan Province, China, and Singapore.

Origin Story: Growing up in central China, I learned to speak Mandarin without any accent. I spent almost every summer back in south central China, and that trained my ear to understand and speak another dialect. This prepared me to be an actor and helped me perform well at the audition to get in a performing arts school (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) in Singapore.

Transformative experience: I love the arts, and I also love science and technology. When I was in college, I explored every aspect of theatre, not just acting, and I worked with many theatre companies in Singapore in different roles: actor, stage manager, technician and designer. After a few years, I fell in love with lighting design—it’s the perfect combination of arts and science. I came to Kent State University to pursue my MFA in lighting design, and I enjoyed every moment!

Lei recently designed the lighting for the fall student musical, Company, at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. (Photo by Xu Wei Vision Studio)

Ratchneewan Ross photographed by Melissa OlsonRatchneewan Ross, PhD, RN

Associate Professor and Director of International Initiatives, College of Nursing

Born & raised: Udon Thani, Thailand

Origin story: My mother sold fresh fish every day at the market; she would wake each morning around 4 a.m. to prepare for her workday. When I was in high school, I would help her pack the fish until midnight. So I paid close attention in classes and did my homework during school hours, because I did not have time to study once I got home.

Transformative experience: For most of my mother’s life, she could not read or write; she taught herself when she was in her late 60s. Yet she could do math at the market as fast and accurately as a calculator! She taught me the value of loving and respecting other people, and she instilled in me the importance of a strong education. At first I wanted to be an engineer, but my parents said, “You really like helping people, you should probably be a nurse.” So I said, “Okay!” I’m thankful they knew me well enough to tell me that.

Ross recently was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing

Lolagul Raimbekova photographed by Melissa Olson
Lolagul Raimbekova, MEd ’15

Doctoral Student and Teaching and Research Assistant, School of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies    

Born & raised: Khorog, Tajikistan

Origin story: Growing up in a traditional society, I had little chance to learn about other cultures, but I was fond of languages. Tajikistan joined the Soviet Union in 1924. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Tajikistan became independent but fell into a brutal civil war. When the war was over in 1997, I studied linguistics at Khorog State University, and after I graduated I was hired as a faculty member there to teach English. During Soviet rule, men and women were equal, but with the collapse things changed rapidly. I married, and my husband’s family is very conservative. In their home, I was treated like a slave and had to please everyone.

Transformative experience: A United States Embassy opened in Tajikistan, and I heard from a colleague that they were giving scholarships for students to come to the United States. I thought it was my only chance to change my life. I had never left my small town or even seen a computer. I applied and was selected to attend one semester at Iowa State University. By then, I had a daughter (who is now 12), and I wanted her to have a better life. My family was against me going, but I decided to go even if no one else was happy. That short semester in 2008 changed my life. Living in a modern democratic society, I realized that I have value and a voice. I can shape my life in a way that works best for me.

Raimbekova first came to Kent State in 2011 as an Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellow, a program of the U.S. Department of State that selects emerging leaders from countries in the former Soviet Union to foster mutual understanding and encourage economic and democratic growth in Eurasia.

“Dancing is a big part of Tajik culture,” says Raimbekova. “You learn it from childhood.” At right, she demonstrates the slow, graceful movements of a traditional Pamiri dance. 

A performance of the traditional Pamiri dance




Nahuel Alfredo Gorostiza photographed by Melissa Olson
Nahuel Alfredo Gorostiza

Sophomore, School of Digital Sciences; Alumni and Public Relations Chairman, Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity (Ohio Kappa); Youth Ambassador of Argentina to the United Nations

Born & raised: Born in General Pico, La Pampa, Argentina. Raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Origin story: I grew up in a middle-class family in the outskirts of a huge city. I attended a private school five minutes from my house and played rugby. But I felt it wasn’t enough for me, and I wanted to meet new people. When I was 15, I decided to commute 90 minutes to a public technical high school to study computer science. I believe that big changes bring big opportunities.

Transformative experience: In 2012 the government had some issues with public high schools, and 15 students from the student union of my new high school blocked the entrance and stopped classes for 25 days. Every day of class we lost, we would have to make up. So I went with a group of students to the secretary of education for the city and told him we wanted to have classes again. They gave us a lawyer and some resources; classes resumed the next day. I was elected president of the student union and kept in touch with the secretary of education. He donated paint and new computers for the school, and we did the painting and set up the computer labs. The school looks brand new. That experience got me engaged in politics as a means of making positive change.

Gorostiza worked in the presidential campaign of the current president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri. As youth ambassador of Argentina to the United Nations, he is involved in a UN project setting world goals for sustainability to be achieved before 2030. Besides his designation to the UN, he says he finds his fraternity “the most life-changing experience I’ve had since I came to college here in the United States.”

Kunwar Ujjwal Mehra photographed by Melissa OlsonKunwar Ujjwal Mehra

Graduate Student, College of Business Administration; Graduate Assistant, Department of Management and Information Systems

Born & raised: Amritsar, India

Origin Story: Since age six, I grew up basically all over India, as I used to travel frequently for roller-skating and chess tournaments. There are a lot of different cultures in India, so I learned to communicate with different types of people. When I came to the United States, it wasn’t a huge culture shock; it was just one more culture to learn.

Transformative experience: When I was 15 years old, the world economy melted down in a number of days. The markets plummeted in India, too—not as much as in the United States, but it did affect things. I’m from a business family, and we were talking about it every day. It intrigued me how the failure of one system of one economy could affect the world in such a huge way. So I came to the United States to study finance and economics in the biggest world economy.

Mehra is helping develop a Master in Business Analytics course for the Department of Management and Information Systems. He keeps on top of his chess game by going to Akron for tournaments; Mehra played a U.S. national champion there and beat him two games out of three.

Dior Delophont photographed by Anthony Migliorino
Dior Delophont, BA ’16

Fashion Design Intern at Hyp Intimates, New York City

Born & raised: Born in Nancy, France. Spent preschool years in Japan.

Origin story: Thanks to my parents I got to travel at an early age. Then during my adolescence I traveled to many countries as part of the French national track team. I was confronted with different cultures, which helps me keep an open mind in life as well as in my design work.

Transformative experience: I wanted to study fashion, but in France I was asked to choose between sports and studies. I didn't want to choose, so I looked up the rankings of the best fashion schools in the United States with a D1 track team. At Kent State I could keep doing high level sports and pursue my education to become a designer. Two years ago, I spent a semester in New York City with the KSU NYC Fashion Studio program, and I realized that my background was going to be my strength for the future. Being in this crazy city where everyone is different, I felt like I belonged and finally felt proud of who I was.

Delophont was nominated for the NCAA’s 2016 Woman of the Year award, in recognition of her achievements at Kent State in academics, athletics, service and leadership. (Photo by Anthony Migliorino)

Felix Kumah-Abiwu photographed by Melissa OlsonFelix Kumah-Abiwu, PhD

Assistant Professor, Pan-African Studies

Born & raised: Born in a town called Ho in the Volta region of Ghana. Raised in the capital city of Accra.

Origin story: Life was quite okay for me when I was growing up, but all that changed when my dad, who was a diplomat, passed away. His sudden departure greatly affected us on all levels. The education system is different in Ghana, so although I was 21, I was still in boarding school (sixth form) and totally dependent on my parents. My mother, who is a nurse, left for the UK to earn some money and, as the first born, I was left in charge of the family. I had to mature quickly.

Transformative experience: After I got my bachelor’s degree from the University of Ghana, I was posted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the required one year of national service. When the year was almost up, I told my supervisor that I just wanted to find a job and support my mom. She said the best option to advance in a career was to get a master’s degree first. It took me awhile to be convinced of her advice, but just before the deadline, I applied to the Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy in Ghana and was accepted. I never imagined I’d go on to earn a doctorate degree, but people came along the way who made it possible for me. Without that supervisor’s advice, though, my life trajectory would have been quite different.

Kumah-Abiwu is wearing a hand-woven Ghanaian smock or fugu, a traditional dress for men in Ghana. When Ghanaian men do the Damba dance, the edge of the smock swirls in a circle. 

Demonstration of the Damba dance




Eron Memaj photographed by Melissa Olson
Eron Memaj

Director of International Student Affairs

Born & raised: Tirana, Albania

Origin story: Albania was going through major political changes in the early 1990s, moving from a one-party system to pluralism. Resources were limited, and when I was nine I had to stand in line for hours just to buy a loaf of bread. Though I was young, I knew I had an important role to help support my family.

Transformative experience: During the 1999 war in Kosovo, many refugees fled to Albania. As a high school student, I volunteered as a translator at a refugee camp. Although eager to test my foreign language skills, I was disturbed by what I had to translate. Women spoke of sons and husbands who had been shot and killed in front of them—or their male relatives had been taken away, and they asked us to find them. The reality of the war finally hit me. I realized that this job was more than just translating, it was providing support for those who were in need.

In addition to developing programs for international students (, Memaj serves as president of the International Faculty and Staff Network at Kent State ( He also volunteers as managing editor of International Student Voice Magazine, a Cleveland-based publication for international students (

Qiaoni Liu photographed by Melissa OlsonQiaoni Liu, MM ’16

Part-time Piano Teaching Faculty at Kent State’s Hugh A. Glauser School of Music

Born & raised: Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China

Origin story: I love my hometown. Chengdu is a beautiful city in the southwest of China. Famous as the city of giant pandas, it also attracts tourists who are interested in spicy food. When I was age four, my parents decided I should learn piano. I was shy, so they thought playing music might help me become more outgoing and express my feelings. Academics in China are really competitive, especially in high school. I’m not a competitive person, so I entered a professional music school and started my professional piano study when I was 12 years old.

Transformative experience: In 2007, I was invited by the Canada National Arts Center to participate in the “Young Artists Program” in Ottawa. I joined other young artists from around the world and rehearsed with them every day. It was my first time participating in chamber music, and I enjoyed it. In chamber music, you need to communicate and cooperate with each other. I was able to share my thoughts and musical ideas, and it helped me feel more confident and able to express myself.

“Scherzo in E Major, Opus 54, No. 4” by Frederic Chopin performed by Qiaoni Liu




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