Class Reunion, Borneo style: Faculty member returns to his Peace Corps roots

Jonathan Hall

Guest post by Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics

Penn State Behrend

Forty years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, teaching students in the only secondary school in the district of Sipitang, Sabah (formerly known as North Borneo). This summer, I returned to visit my former students and fellow teachers. I brought along my daughter, Liz Hall, who was a student at Behrend in 2003-04 before attending the U.S. Naval Academy.

Our trip started with a fourteen-hour flight from the United States to China, and then to Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), the capital of Sabah. We arrived late in the evening, and checked into the hotel. When the receptionist found out that I had been a teacher in Sipitang, which was near her hometown of Beaufort, it resulted in all of the staff wanting to have their picture taken with the “guru from Sipitang.” It was a warm welcome back to Sabah.

After a recovery day on the beaches of the South China Sea, we headed to a downtown hotel for a reunion dinner with some of my former students who live and work in KK.

It was Ramadan, a month-long religious observation during which Muslims fast each day from dawn to sunset, so we joined them for their evening meal when they broke the day’s fast. It was a buffet offering a wide variety of dishes, from curries to satay, which was an excellent introduction to Malaysian cuisine for Liz.

After eating, we went around the table, telling our stories from the past forty years. A friendly competition emerged regarding the number of grandchildren each person at the table had. The person with the most had seven.

 

Class reunion

First, a little history

Malaysia was formed from a collection of colonies in the early 1960s. In order to develop as a nation, expanding education from the few to the many was the number one priority of the government.

To accomplish this, Malaysia “imported” teachers from other countries to teach, especially topics such as math and science, in rural areas. This is how Peace Corps volunteers came to be in Malaysia from the early 1960s until the early 1980s, helping until Malaysia was able to train enough of their own teachers.

As is common in other nations in Asia, your academic success, and your future career, is largely determined by the results of national standardized exams. The exams are given at the end of Form 3 and Form 5 (ninth and eleventh grade). Math is a mandatory pass. If you fail the math exam, that is the end of your education.

The parents of many of my students were subsistence farmers or fishermen, but they knew that education was the key to a brighter future for their children. Unfortunately, because they lived in a remote area, many of my students did not have teachers who were qualified in math during their early years in school. We had a year or two to catch up through practice in class, daily homework, and extra classes after school and on Saturdays when necessary.

At the reunion dinner, several of my students said that they came to high school unprepared in math, but learned and became proficient enough at it to pass their exams, which enabled them to move on to careers in teaching, nursing, banking, business and law. It was very gratifying to hear that.

I don’t think that I did anything special or was a particularly good teacher as I’d just graduated from college, but it was enough for me to volunteer to be present where I was needed. In that place and time, it was critical to have a qualified teacher who was willing and able to help them prepare for their exams.

Mountain climbing with former student

On day three, Liz and I went to Mount Kinabalu to meet up with my former student, Daring Laban.

When I taught Daring, he lived in a remote village, Long Pa Sia, close to the Indonesian border. Students from his village traveled five days on foot through the rain forest to attend secondary school, where they lived in a dormitory.

mt kinabalu climbers

Liz, myself, and Daring

Today, Daring is the manager of Sabah State Parks. Sabah Parks administers several state and national parks, including Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, and the Danum Valley Conservation Area, a mostly undisturbed rainforest that is the home of orangutans, Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy elephants, and more. Sabah Parks host 1.3 million visitors a year, playing a major role in tourism, the second largest sector of the state economy. While much of the rainforest has been lost over the past forty years, ecotourism has replaced timber as a mainstay of the economy and is helping to preserve the remaining rain forest.

On Mount Kinabalu, we traveled through four climate zones as we climbed—lowland dipterocarp rain forest, montane forest, cloud forest, and sub-apline vegetation—before reaching bare rock and the peak at 13,400 feet.

Daring Jon Liz Mt KinabaluDaring, me, and Liz on Mt. Kinabalu

Liz & Daring climbing

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

Mt Kinabalu peak

Mt. Kinabalu peak

The park was formed to preserve its great biodiversity, including some of the world’s largest pitcher plants, and the Rafflesia, said to be the world’s largest flower. During the 8.5-kilometer hike, we climbed 2 kilometers in altitude.

In June 2015, there was an earthquake at the mountain. Rockslides killed eighteen climbers; most of those killed were students visiting from Singapore. The trail was closed for six months for repairs. The violence of the earthquake was still very evident, with large areas of newly exposed white granite where the rockslides occurred instead of dark, weathered rock seen elsewhere.

rock slide Mt K

Rockslide damage on Mt. Kinabalu

We celebrated a successful climb by stopping at an open-air restaurant specializing in wild boar, which are hunted in the oil palm plantations.

Visiting Long Pa Sia

After hiking, it was on to the interior village of Long Pa Sia. Back then, it was a 50-mile trek. Now, it is accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles over a logging road.

The village is named by the native Lun Dayeh people1. Long = mouth, Pa = river, and Sia = red. In traditional Borneo, the river was the lifeblood of the community and was used for transportation, water, food, and bathing.

We spent a day hunting and fishing with another of my former students, Lukas. Lukas retired from banking in the city to hunt, a traditional way of life in the interior. We caught several small fish in the river. Lukas and his hunting dogs brought back a barking deer.

Long Pa Sia

The village of Long Pa Sia

Liz at Pa Sia river

Liz at the Pa Sia river

Lukas & Daring after hunt

Lukas and Daring after hunting

Many changes, but friends remain

Sipitang was my home far away from home when I was in the Peace Corps. All of the towns and cities in Sabah have grown and developed so much over the last forty years, that they were nearly unrecognizable to me. (In Long Pa Sia, which was known very being remote, there is now excellent cell phone reception!) Sipitang was no exception.

In Sipitang, changes included a hospital, paved roads, enough cars to have traffic jams, new schools, factories and industries, and many more people. Gone is the old open-air fish market where fishermen off-loaded from small praus their catch of prawns, squid, fish, and rays. Also gone is the fruit and vegetable market where farmers brought baskets of bananas, durians, rambutans, and other tropical fruits. Now there are two supermarkets instead.

Taking a walk down memory lane, I showed Liz the school where I taught.

Next it was on to a “Hari Raya” dinner, celebrating the end of Ramadan. The dinner was hosted by Ramawi, another former student. Ramawi’s family happens to include Wan Musa, a fellow science teacher. We worked closely together forty years ago and became dear friends. I attended Wan Musa’s wedding, where I was the Malay equivalent of his best man, which included having the groom’s face and mine smeared with rice flour.

It was great to see him again, however briefly.

Jonathan & Wan Musa

Me and Wan Musa

Weddings, coffee, and longhouses

Speaking of weddings, the next day we traveled to Sarawak, the other Malaysian state on Borneo, crossing the Lawas River by ferry to attend a Lun Dayeh wedding.

Ishak Liz Lawas river ferry

Ishak and Liz at the Lawas river ferry

After a Christian wedding ceremony, there was a reception for the entire community, which included traditional songs and dance, and the giving of baskets of gifts by the bride to members of both families.

Lun Dayeh wedding

Lun Dayeh wedding in Sarawak

The next day, was a road trip to Tenom, to drink the locally grown coffee and visit the Sabah Murut Cultural Center. Built as a traditional longhouse, but on a much larger scale, the center includes displays of traditional dress, baskets, musical instruments (gongs), and other aspects of the culture and history of the local native people.

On the way back, we stopped at two longhouses—a traditional wooden longhouse and a new one made with modern materials. Regardless of the building materials, the basic design is the same. Longhouses are an elevated building in which each family has an “apartment” consisting of a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. All of the apartments open onto a verandah, which runs the length of the longhouse and serves as a common area.

Sipitang Longhouse

At a longhouse

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Stock photo of a typical Borneo longhouse

Math teacher turned voice coach?

After visiting Sarawak, we returned to KK to prepare for our 3 a.m. flight home the next day. But, before leaving, we met up with other former students for the most sumptuous Chinese dinner I’ve ever had.

In my three years in Sabah, I taught one English class. Being a math/science teacher, and learning TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) on the fly, I decided to incorporate singing in the lessons. Albert, one of my former students who was at dinner that night, was in my English class and said that I inspired him to become a pretty decent karaoke singer. (As a teacher, you plant a seed and…)

Durian McFlurrys

What has changed in Sabah over the past forty years? Every town has a KFC. Also, there are McDonald’s restaurants and they serve Durian McFlurrys. This is a flavor that would not go over big in the United States.

McDonalds durian

While many Asians love the taste of durian, as do I, others have been known to object to the scent of durian. One writer described durian as “eating a delicious raspberry sorbet in a revolting public lavatory.”

Durian smells so bad, that it is banned in many public places. Upscale hotels charge large cleaning fees if it is brought into a guest room.

no durians

Final reflections

In Malaysia, one is struck by the hospitality of people. It is part of a way of life, of forming relationships with others, and strengthening those relationships is valuable and important to them. My students thanked me for teaching them. I thanked them for welcoming me into their lives.

While I taught students science, math, geography, and English, they taught me something of great value that I have kept close to my heart. The students in my class came from a wide variety of diverse backgrounds, with different cultures, languages, and religions, but they were all classmates together. They worked and learned together and respected one other.

In the classes I taught, I never witnessed anyone being left out or excluded because of differences. The class was only successful if every student was, so students helped each other.

Forty years later, that has not changed. It is normal and natural for Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan to invite Christian and Chinese classmates to their home to share a meal. They don’t let their differences divide them, they respect and celebrate those differences2. This was particularly striking to me now because in our current times, there are some who openly advocate that if people are different, they should be kept separate.

The native people of central Borneo; the Lun Dayeh (also known as Lun Bawang), Kelabit and Sa’ban, are involved in the Heart of Borneo Project, dedicated to the conservation of the remaining rain forest in central Borneo. Preserving the environment impacts the preservation of traditions, languages, culture, and a way of life for the people there. Their slogan is: “Serurum. Selawe. Meruked.” This translates from Lun Dayeh as: “Friends. One way (united). Forever.”

Thanks and terima kasih3to the students of Sipitang for teaching this “guru” the most important of lessons.

NOTES:

1. Though we live on opposite sides of the globe, the Lun Dayeh people have a history of friendship with Americans. Before World War II, American missionaries with the Borneo Evangelical Mission lived in Lun Dayeh communities. When Borneo was occupied early in WWII, these missionaries and their families were executed. Later in the war, two American bombers crashed in the interior. Surviving crew members were found by the Lun Dayeh, who recognized them as Americans. The Lun Dayeh leaders, then made the decision to shelter, protect, and defend the American crewmen, at the risk of their own lives and communities. The Americans were guided to a location where British special forces established a small airfield to return the crewman to safety. For the full story, read The Airmen and the Headhunters by Judith M. Heimann, or watch the PBS Secrets of the Dead episode of the same name as the book title.

2. If you like holidays, Malaysia is the place to be. You can celebrate Muslim, Christian, Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, national and harvest festival holidays!

3. While terima kasih is how you say thank you in Malay, I prefer it’s literal meaning, which is “receive love.” The response, sama sama, means “the same to you”!

A Capella Engagement at Tone-Acious Concert

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

According to the program handed out before the Tone-Acious concert in late April, the student a capella group was going to sing seven songs.

But after performing those songs for the nearly-full audience in Reed 117, instead of taking a bow, members of the group lowered a viewing screen on the stage and announced a surprise final song.

As they launched into God Only Knows by The Beach Boys, a slideshow of images from the last year of Tone-Acious’ concerts and activities played on the screen. The audience laughed and smiled at club members hamming it up for the camera.

Then, it got weird. Literally. The slideshow contained the words: “And now things get strange…” What followed were a series of photos of a little boy and girl, then a slightly older boy and girl, then a teenage boy and girl.

Eventually it dawned on the confused audience that it was the same boy and girl. Yet, they didn’t seem to be members of Tone-Acious.

It all made sense a few moments later when the adult version of the boy in the photos pulled the adult version of the girl in the photos onto the stage and dropped to one knee.

She said yes.

Well, sort of.

“I was so surprised that I could only nod with tears running down my face,” said Lexie Gee, the bride-to-be.

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Gee met her future husband, Christian Olson, a mechanical engineering technology major at Penn State Behrend, in preschool. By middle school, the Warren-Pennsylvania, natives were a couple. They’ve been dating for nearly six years.

 

Olson arranged the surprise engagement with Tone-Acious member Ashley Meyer.

“I wanted to do something music-related and showy, but I was lacking in the number of musically-talented friends to help me, so I talked to Ashley about involving Tone-Acious.”

God Only Knows is a song we both loved from our high school choir days,” Olson said. “So that’s the song I asked them to sing for us.”

Gee had no idea Olson was planning to propose. “When the pictures of us came up on the screen, I was caught off guard.”

Her family, including her sister, who is a Penn State Behrend student and was in the audience that evening, was not. Gee’s father supplied the ring.

“It’s a beautifully engraved ring that had been my mother’s when my father proposed to her, so it’s very special to me,” Gee said. “My family is ecstatic about our engagement. They’ve known for months and were having trouble keeping it from me.”

Olson and Gee are planning a July 13, 2019, wedding in their hometown of Warren.

acapella engagement

 

Standout Seniors: Meet Gina Demeo

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s class of 2018 is ready to make its mark on the world!  We’re proud of our students and the things they’ve accomplished and learned while here at Behrend. Over the next couple months, we’ll be introducing you to a few of our remarkable seniors who have overcome challenges, pioneered new technology, participated in important research projects, and left an impression at Penn State Behrend.

Today, we’d like you to meet Gina Demeo:

Gina DeMeo

Major: Industrial Engineering

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Scholarships: I received the PNC Leadership Scholarship

On choosing her major: Industrial engineering is about making things work efficiently, which is something I knew I was good at.

Campus involvement: I am president of the National Organization of Business and Engineering (NOBE) club, treasurer of the Materials and Manufacturing group, and an Engineering Ambassador. I’m also a member of the student chapter of the Institute of Industrial Systems Engineers and vice president of member development for Alpha Sigma Tau.

On taking charge: It is easy for me to take the lead on a project or planning an event. If no one seems to be stepping up to do so, I will happily put in 110 percent to get it off the ground.

What you’d be surprised to know about her: One of the best parts of my college experience has been being a member of a sorority. When you’re a woman in a male-dominated field, you need a strong girlfriend group. I found that within my sorority.

The good life, defined: To me, living a good life means being happy and kind to everyone. During my time at Behrend, I have been able to find a balance within myself to be able to do just that.

 

Following her graduation in May, Gina plans to find a job in the field of industrial engineering.

Standout Seniors: Meet Troy Valkusky

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s class of 2018 is ready to make its mark on the world!  We’re proud of our students and the things they’ve accomplished and learned while here at Behrend. Over the next couple months, we’ll be introducing you to a few of our remarkable seniors who have overcome challenges, pioneered new technology, participated in important research projects, and left an impression at Penn State Behrend.

Today, we’d like you to meet Troy Valkusky:

Troy valkusky

Major: Project and Supply Chain Management

Minor: Managing Information Systems

Hometown: Drifton, Pennsylvania

On choosing Penn State Behrend: Behrend has many unique certifications that other schools do not offer. This allows me to differentiate myself from other graduates across the country. Also, while my first priority was academics, I wanted to continue playing water polo.

On choosing his major: After four semesters of exploratory classes, I took an interest in PSCM because it offers a wide variety of potential career paths and is a rapidly growing industry.

Proudest accomplishment at Behrend: Being able to maintain Dean’s List for five semesters in a row while being a full-time student, an athlete, and working part time.

Campus involvement: I am the president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, captain of the men’s water polo team, a Lion Ambassador, and a member of the professional business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi.

What makes him unique: I am very adaptable. I moved to Texas in the summer of 2017 for a global supply chain internship with Alcon, A Novartis Division, without knowing anyone. I knew this decision was a risk in itself, but that is what it’s all about, leaving the comfort zone and seeing new places that hold great opportunities. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

What you’d be surprised to know about him: I try to skydive at least once every summer.

His definition of the good life: Traveling the world, meeting new people, and living in the moment.

Lifelong park hopper: I am very passionate about major league baseball. From an early age, I have traveled the country with my parents to different ballparks. My goal is to see a game played in each one.

Advice for new students: Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of different organizations you can join. Take the first semester to explore and find some that interest you. Then, commit to get involved with those organizations. Try to take on leadership roles within those groups because it will benefit you in the long run.

Following his graduation in May, Troy plans to look for work as a global supply chain coordinator.

Standout Seniors: Meet Samantha Stauffer

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s class of 2018 is ready to make its mark on the world!  We’re proud of our students and the things they’ve accomplished and learned while here at Behrend. Over the next couple months, we’ll be introducing you to a few of our remarkable seniors who have overcome challenges, pioneered new technology, participated in important research projects, and left an impression at Penn State Behrend.

Today, we’d like you to meet Samantha Stauffer:

samantha stauffer

Major: Nursing

Hometown: Bradford, Pennsylvania

On choosing Penn State Behrend: It was the first college I visited and I simply fell in love and knew that I was meant to attend Behrend. The campus was gorgeous, everyone I met was helpful and friendly, and I was given a plethora of information about expectations for the first year. I also have many family members in Erie, so it was practical for me to attend Behrend.

On choosing nursing: My grandma was a nurse at our local hospital for forty-two years. I grew up hearing endless stories from her. She was extremely influential in my life so I wanted to be like her and dedicate my life to helping others.

Proudest accomplishment at Behrend: Completing the nursing program! Earning a nursing degree is incredibly challenging and extremely time consuming, so it is definitely a huge accomplishment for me to finally finish.

Campus involvement: I was involved in Lion Ambassadors, the Joys of Nursing Club, the National Society of Leadership and Success, the Random Acts of Kindness club, and the Spring Concert Committee. I also served as a Welcome Week guide.

What you’d be surprised to know about her: I love to golf. Most of my family has invested a lot of time in golfing so it was only natural for me to follow in their footsteps.

Advice for new students: Get organized! One of my biggest mistakes in college was being disorganized. Take time to prioritize your classes, clubs, and organizations and be prepared for upcoming events and assignments. Staying organized is key to success in college!

Samantha has accepted a position as an emergency room nurse at Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie.

Standout Seniors: Meet Will Aldridge

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s class of 2018 is ready to make its mark on the world!  We’re proud of our students and the things they’ve accomplished and learned while here at Behrend. Over the next couple months, we’ll be introducing you to a few of our remarkable seniors who have overcome challenges, pioneered new technology, participated in important research projects, and left an impression at Penn State Behrend.

Today we’d like you to meet Will Aldridge:

Will Aldridge

Major: Mechanical Engineering

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

On choosing Penn State Behrend: I chose Behrend because of its highly-rated mechanical engineering program and the ability to have one-on-one interactions with professors.

On choosing his major: Both of my parents are engineers so it’s really the only thing that I’ve ever known. I actually graduated from University Park as a petroleum engineer in 2014. I worked in the petroleum industry for two years as a field engineer with Halliburton Energy Services, one of the largest oilfield service companies. I traveled throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio working on Marcellus and Utica shale gas wells for customers like Royal Dutch Shell, CONSOL Energy, and EQT. After two years, my facility in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was closed as a result of downturn in oil prices that occurred between 2014 and 2016. I was given the opportunity to transfer to a facility in Ohio but decided to turn down the transfer to return to school to become a mechanical engineer in order to open up a broader range of career opportunities.

Proudest accomplishment at Behrend: I was a member of a team selected to work on a senior design project for NASA. I’m also proud to have been invited to compete in the 2018 Collegiate Innovation Showcase.

Campus involvement: I serve as the president for the student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and I will be competing in the Erie Collegiate Innovation Showcase. I’m also a member of Dr. Shraddha Sangelkar’s undergraduate research team and will be participating in the 2018 Capstone Design Conference in Rochester, New York.

A willing coach: I like helping people reach their goals by encouraging them to go outside of their comfort zone and by sharing my experiences.

What you’d be surprised to know about him: Britney Spears follows me on Twitter, I’m an avid windsurfer, and I’ve attended four different Penn State campuses.

What he’s passionate about: Music and photography. I can’t wait to buy a drone.

Advice for new students: Learn to prioritize your time and develop good study habits. Take advantage of the opportunities that you have being a Penn State student by attending the Behrend and University Park career fairs even when you are a first year student. Companies love getting their hands on young talent and developing your skills through multiple internships.

After his graduation in May, Will plans to pursue a career in engineering design, product development, or industrial design.

 

Curiosity leads to opportunity for nursing student

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

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Efua Crentsil, senior nursing major

Has your curiosity ever led you down a rabbit hole? It starts with reading something online and then you have a question, so you open another browser window and Google it. Next thing you know, you’ve lost forty-five minutes of your life researching how almonds grow (on trees!) or how spiders survive winter in northern states (in eggs!).

An inquisitive mind is an asset for students when it’s channeled toward topics in their field of study. A need to know more can lead to opportunity.

It did for Efua Crentsil, a senior nursing major, whose interest in a class project spilled into independent summer research work, which led to an invitation to present her work at two different industry events.

Crentsil, a native of Ghana, began researching whether nurses preferred to work with nurse practitioners or with physicians and what impact that had on their job satisfaction for her NURS 200W Principles of Nursing Research and Evidence-Based Practice class. The project piqued her interest and she continued working on it after the class was over.

“I wanted to know more and look deeper at the subject,” she said. “Dr. Alison Walsh (assistant teaching professor of nursing) had been asking if any nursing students wanted to develop a research project, so I told her I’d be interested.”

Walsh says Crentsil exceeded expectations. “She took her evidence-based class project and continued to develop it into a systematic review—Job Satisfaction in Registered Nurses: The Effect of Working with Nurse Practitioners Compared to Physicians.”

While Crentsil did not receive academic credit for her research work, she was rewarded with an invitation to present her work at the Annual Scientific Sessions of the Eastern Nursing Research Society in New Jersey.

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That invitation, in turn, led to a second opportunity to speak at UPMC Hamot Hospital’s Research Symposium in Erie where Crentsil won the Student Award for her work, which came with a $250 education scholarship.

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Crentsil said she used existing data from four online databases to do her research work, but that next she would like to collect her own research data.

“I did informal polling and observation while I did an internship at The Cleveland Clinic this summer, but I primarily relied on existing data,” she said.

Crentsil said her research showed an 80/20 percent split with the majority of nurses reporting higher job satisfaction working with nurse practitioners than with physicians.

“This was mostly due to communication,” she said. “Nurses felt that nurse practitioners listened to them more and gave them more independence and respect. Those who reported higher satisfaction in working with physicians said they preferred doctors because they tended to be straight to the point, more confident, and more knowledgeable than nurse practitioners.”

Crentsil has reason to be interested in nurse practitioners and research: She sees both as potential career paths.

“I wanted to be a nurse practitioner, but now I’m considering being a nursing researcher because if institutions can see why they should make changes, they’re more likely to do so,” she said. “The research has to be done first.”

Crentsil, who graduates on Friday with a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing and a minor in women’s studies, is currently considering several job offers. She plans to stay in the United States for a few years and return to graduate school after she gains nursing experience.

Crentsil is a recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship, the Penn State Behrend Chancellor Scholarship, and a Special International Grant-in-Aid (SIGIA). “I am so thankful,” she said. “I truly would not be here if not for this financial support.”