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Home Among the Hills


Hills at Spruce Knob.

Written by Diana Mazzella
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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If you were to walk onto the West Virginia University campus in 2017, you would have the chance to share in a whole world of experiences. You can learn a new language – from Arabic to Chinese. You can meet new friends who come from places ranging from Taiwan to Turkey. Our future alumni come from 107 countries. Some of them immigrated to the U.S. as children. Others are the children of immigrants. And some just arrived in the U.S. to attend college.

The current freshman class is the most diverse in WVU’s history. In fall 2016, the Morgantown campus increased minority freshman enrollment by 27 percent. But true diversity can’t be expressed accurately in statistics. Our students live in stories, such as: Speaks Urdu at home. Visits Costa Rica every year. Grandmother emigrated from India.

Here, we share with you some of their stories, tying them together with what they all have in common:

They’re Mountaineers.


Click a profile below to jump to that section.

Mays Ibraheem at the Morgantown marina.


Hometown: Morgantown, W.Va.
Major: Biology

Whenever cologne wafts through the air, Mays Ibraheem remembers Aleppo.

She was born in the Syrian city of 5 million where she once went shopping at midnight, where enticing food stalls seemed to be on every corner and where no one let visitors leave their home until they were completely stuffed with food.

“Just like how your grandma would feed you until you burst,” Ibraheem says, “except this time it’s literally everyone you visit.”

When she was in kindergarten, long before the current civil war, her family left Syria to settle in Morgantown. Because she wears a hijab, or headscarf – and when she isn’t talking a mile a minute in fluent English – some take her to be an international student, someone who came to WVU from another country to attend the University.

She finds this hilarious. Because she grew up in Morgantown. And most people in the city right now did not.

As a biology major who wants to be a psychiatrist, she knows that human brains rely on shortcuts – called schemas – when categorizing human information. Stereotypes develop.

So she is more than willing to share her story to counteract this human tendency. She often shares as much as she can in the first minutes of meeting someone so that initial questions are answered immediately. Yes, she’s Muslim. Yes, she is an American. No, she was not made to wear a hijab; it was her choice.

Most of the questions she gets are about her hijab. One of the most common was: Do you shower in that?  

No, she does not.

“People don’t know how life-loving I am and how much I love adventure, and I’m very bubbly,” Ibraheem said.

“I am very West Virginian, and I am very Syrian.”— MAYS IBRAHEEM

She knows that sometimes she’s seen as a Muslim first because of her headscarf. But first she’s a woman named Mays.

“I am very much independent, and I can do what I please, and all the choices that I have made were my own,” Ibraheem says. “And I am very extroverted, and I am very loud-and-proud. And I am very West Virginian, and I am very Syrian.”

Her overarching memory of Aleppo is the way people were with each other. The generosity. The friendliness. Those are the qualities she sees in Morgantown, her home where she decided to stay for college.

Mays Ibraheem at the Morgantown Marina.


She recalls that one day while sitting by the window in Chaang Thai on High Street, a woman passed by and waved to her. Then the woman’s whole group waved. And Ibraheem and her friends waved back.

“Do you know them?” her friends asked.  

“No, they’re just really nice,” Ibraheem said.

If townies are friendly, then Mountaineers are passionate. Ibraheem, who will be a junior this fall, went to WVU because she’d seen that spirit and wanted it for herself. 

“I love the openness and diversity and adventure and passion that Mountaineers have,” she said. “... We love who we are and what we’re made of, and we are so loyal, and we are very passionate about the things that we do, and we are very, very strong individuals.

“From a very young age, I wanted to be part of the Mountaineers. As I saw my family friends’ children grow up and go to WVU, I thought it was so cool I wanted to be part of WVU, too.

“And now I am.”

Jana El-Khatib stands at Dorsey's Knob.

Jana El-Khatib

Hometown: Hurricane, W.Va.
Major: Psychology

This spring, the WVU Muslim Students Association held the Hijabi Monologues, where Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf – or choose not to – shared their experiences and decisions with the audience.

Jana El-Khatib was the only one not wearing a hijab.

“I think people have misconceptions both about people who wear the hijab and also about people who don’t wear the hijab,” she said. “They look at someone who doesn’t wear it and they immediately think, ‘Oh she’s not religious,’ or ‘She’s not a practicing Muslim.’ But I think that’s incorrect. You can still be into your faith without having to wear the hijab. You can make it up in different ways within the faith.”

For El-Khatib, not wearing it was a choice she made at this point in her life. Some in her family do wear it, such as an aunt. Others don’t. They’re all still Muslim.

“The hijab is a symbol of modesty to me,” she said. “I really respect it. And I really have a lot of respect for everyone that wears it, especially in the U.S. where wearing it … you’re putting up that risk of maybe someone saying something to you, getting a weird look.”

El-Khatib, a rising junior and Honors College student who is leaning toward a career in counseling, grew up in Hurricane, W.Va., where there was only one other Arab family. She went to the mosque in Charleston where there was Islamic school every Sunday. There, they celebrated Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, and Eid al-Adha, which marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. 

She remembers when she would fast until nightfall during Ramadan and her classmates would ask why she wasn’t eating at lunch.

“They’d be like, ‘Don’t you eat?’ ‘How are you not dead?’” she recounted with a chuckle.

Some wanted to know if it was OK for them to eat next to her. It was, she assured them. Most of her classmates were supportive. She was a Muslim they interacted with regularly. She was there at homecoming and football games when the whole town gathered together. Everyone knew each other, and she knew that if she ever needed anything, her friends’ parents would be right there to help.

“I feel like I could go to anyone, and they would be so nice and supportive and generous,” she said.

  Jana El-Khatib at Dorsey's Knob Park in Morgantown.

El-Khatib’s father is from Egypt and left in his 20s after he finished his medical degree in psychiatry.

“When he came here, he had a lot of struggles with finding a residency that would take a foreign medical graduate,” she said. “... He’d be working at McDonald’s with a medical degree just for the fact that he couldn’t find a residency.”

But he ultimately did find one – in West Virginia – and he now works as a psychiatrist in Charleston.

El-Khatib’s mother is from Lebanon, which she fled because of the civil war that started in 1975 and didn’t end until 1990. By the end of the war, it’s estimated that 120,000 had died and nearly one million people left the country.

“West Virginia is my home, especially WVU.”–JANA EL-KHATIB

During the 2016-17 winter break, El-Khatib visited Lebanon, where the cliffs form a stark contrast to the Mediterranean Sea. She visited Egypt several times when she was younger, but hasn’t been back since the 2011 revolution.

Her three older siblings all attended WVU, and her older sister, Farrah, was a Fulbright Scholar in 2014. During Farrah’s time in Malaysia, Jana visited her and got to discover their food, language and clothing.

El-Khatib is interested in others’ cultures and gets to learn so much at WVU, where she’s a conversation partner in the Intensive English program. She speaks English with students, who are mostly Arabic – from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria – but who have different cultural backgrounds, dialects and experiences.

She feels the tug from West Virginia, her home, and the tug from Egypt and Lebanon, the places where her parents learned their shared culture. She describes home as a place where you’re welcome, safe and have opportunities.

“In that sense,” she says, “I would say West Virginia is my home, especially WVU.”

Zabrina Fuentes in downtown Morgantown.

Zabrina Fuentes

Hometown: Bristow, Va.
Major: International Studies and Spanish

Zabrina Fuentes wants you to know about the Latinx* students at WVU. The first thing you need to know?

“That they do exist,” she says with a chuckle.

In fall 2016, there were 987 Hispanic American students at WVU, not including international students from Spanish-speaking countries. That’s 3 percent of the 28,488 students on the Morgantown campus at the start of classes.

“I think at first a lot of people are very hesitant because they think that – I mean they don’t think, they know – it’s a predominantly white school so they kind of feel like we’re not diverse, and that’s not true,” she said.

Fuentes, a rising senior and president of the student organization Culturas WVU, grew up in northern Virginia, near Manassas. An only child, her friends from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds were her siblings. That’s not that different from her life at WVU.

She leads Culturas, a group where Latinx students gather along with those who love the associated cultures, like her roommate who is of Russian descent, speaks fluent Spanish and took a Global Brigades health service trip to Nicaragua this spring break. It’s a group where Fuentes can rattle off the states people came from, but isn’t as familiar with their families’ countries of origin.

Their group is for everyone, but it’s particularly a place where Latinx students can find others who share a similar culture.

Fuentes has returned to her mother’s home country of Costa Rica nearly every year since she was 8 months old. Her dad is from El Salvador, and though she hasn’t visited there, it’s one of the trips she’d like to take.

When she visited WVU after applying, she had a response that you’ve probably never heard.

“I came to campus, and I fell in love because it reminded me so much of Costa Rica,” she said.

The aunt who brought her to the visit agreed. It’s the hills, the river views, the small-town feel, the fresh air. It all brought her nostalgia.

Students take part in a dance session as part of Culturas WVU.


After she graduates, she wants to do something that helps people, probably in the nonprofit arena. You can see how that’s her path with her live-and-let-live outlook and desire to welcome everyone.  

As tensions rise in the U.S. and conversations get personal about immigration from Central America and Mexico, Fuentes advises students to focus on making “baby steps.”

“You’re not going to change someone’s opinion overnight. That’s the truth,” she says. “But what I’ve told people is you can sit and listen, kind of prove your point and you can agree to disagree.

“As long as you’re being open-minded and making sure you’re listening to what people have to say, that’s one step in the right direction. Everyone’s going to disagree. Not everyone’s going to agree on something. That’s life.”

“I came to campus, and I fell in love because it reminded me so much of Costa Rica.”– ZABRINA FUENTES

One of the regular activities at Culturas meetings is dancing. Fuentes says she was probably dancing in the womb, she loves it so much. As she encourages the students who are nervous about dancing salsa or bachata, she cheers them on with a “You guys got this!” She finds that students are better at it than they think they are.

“I think some people’s problem with dancing is that they think about it too much,” she said. “You just kind of gotta go with the flow.”

* “Latinx” is the gender-neutral form of “Latino” and “Latina.”

Ahmed Haque at the WVU Arboretum.

Ahmed Haque was in the Dominican Republic two years ago with the WVU chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He enjoyed the process of water quality testing. But what he remembers most was the children coughing.

The roofs were made with asbestos, which caused the coughing. And the local water was contaminated with animal waste.

Fast forward to spring break 2017. In Boone County, W.Va., on another Engineers Without Borders trip, the group worked in a community that hadn’t had a clean water source in two years.

It was stories like these that made Haque – who had been deciding between engineer or doctor as a career – choose the medical path after he graduates.

Haque’s dad was a doctor. The family ended up in West Virginia when his dad did his medical residency at WVU. Born in Richmond, Va., Haque grew up in Bridgeport, W.Va., a town of about 8,000 people where he was on the swim team.

That was after his parents emigrated from India and Pakistan. He knows what you were just thinking. Growing up, he got it all the time: other kids wondering if he was joking. How could he be Indian and Pakistani if he looked like one of the redheaded Weasleys from the “Harry Potter” series?

“I absolutely do not look like the first image one would have of an Indian, Pakistani or someone who’s Muslim,” Haque says.

But he is, with an Arabic name and the barest hint of an accent from speaking Urdu at home.  

Being Muslim was unusual in Bridgeport, with only two or three other Muslim families in the area. But it didn’t lead to problems. He can recall only a few experiences that he described as “outright rancor against me.”

“You rarely encounter anyone who’s going to start anything with you because of your faith,” he said of people in the state.

But the TV showed another world. Haque was in kindergarten as the 9/11 terror attacks unfolded.

“I can remember growing up seeing on the news just people vilifying you without knowing you,” he said. “That’s something – it’s really hard to take as a kid, especially because, when you have peers and all, they may make jokes that they may not realize are culturally insensitive – just terrible jokes. But you kind of have to understand that you can’t push against the people who are saying these things because they often don’t know that it’s wrong, so you have to be very patient.

“That’s what I learned growing up. You have to be able to calmly explain what your differences are. But also the similarities. Because there are similarities. I mean, we’re all similar. We all want what’s best for our families. We all want to be there for our peers ... You have different ways of speaking love, but it’s love all the same.”

Ahmed Haque at the WVU Arboretum.

Love for others seems to cover a lot of Haque’s pursuits. On a recent Saturday, the Honors College student was at a science, technology, engineering and math event for Girl Scout Daisies and their families and he got to see the children’s young minds at work and encourage them to think about these fields in their futures. And when he visits veterans at the VA hospital, he gets to hear their stories. He says he gets the most joy from these interactions.

When he’s not doing homework or service work, the rising senior likes to swim at the Student Rec Center and watch the WVU women’s soccer team, one of the most successful teams on campus. When he looks around, he sees people from different countries, with different faiths, different majors and different interests. But what he focuses on is the similarity, that one bond that connects them all.

“You have different ways of speaking love, but it’s love all the same.”–AHMED HAQUE

“Once you set foot on this campus, you are a Mountaineer for life,” he said.

“And being a Mountaineer is not limited to any race, creed, orientation, any marker of identification. Being a Mountaineer is just about at the end of the day just being very proud of the gold and blue, being proud of all of our teams, being proud of all of the great minds we have, all of the great scholars who’ve come from this University, all of the great leaders who’ve made their mark on the world.

“And so I think that’s something that has always been a part of WVU. That’s something that will always be a part of WVU. And that’s my WVU, and that’s their WVU.”

Roshan Daniel at Mountainlair Plaza.

Roshan Daniel

Hometown: Chantilly, Va.
Major: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

In October 2016, Roshan Daniel stood on Mountaineer Field with nine other Homecoming Court candidates.

He was a student in the Honors College who had run for Student Government Association as a sophomore and lost. Then in 2015, he interviewed for Homecoming King and lost. This was his fifth year, and he’d spent the week campaigning with the support of friends.

Then the moment came. His named was called. He was Homecoming King.

“People ask me what do I do as Homecoming King,” Daniel said. “I don’t really do much. But as Roshan I do a ton of things. I’m all over the place.

“I feel like this Homecoming King title is the culmination of my journey and my time here at WVU. It means the world to me.”

Daniel had spent two years as chief information officer of SGA before being appointed treasurer. He went from the high of Homecoming to the serious work of supporting students in a tense time.

Leading up to the U.S. presidential election and in the days after, he saw some of the worst in people. Police investigated a case where Muslim prayer rugs had been doused in urine. Muslim women wearing hijabs reported being harassed. And minorities would share with Daniel the things people yelled at them from open car windows.

And then he saw the best of people. He and his fellow student senators listened and shared concerns with University administration. They checked in with each other and expanded their social circles. At a unity circle in front of Woodburn Hall that followed the election, he saw people from many backgrounds reaffirm their commitment to all Mountaineers.  

“We came together as one,” Daniel said. “... We’re one WVU. It’s just a campaign slogan, but I think it’s a true statement. It really puts that feeling into a phrase.”

Roshan Daniel and Kallie Nealis, the 2016 Homecoming King and Queen.


Daniel chose WVU instead of the Virginia schools where his classmates were headed. He wanted to make his own path and WVU wanted him, offering him a good scholarship. It wasn’t unusual for someone in his family to choose a challenging road.

His grandmother moved from India to Prince George’s County, Md., as a single mother with her middle school-aged daughter, Daniel’s mother. Daniel remembers how his grandmother worked shifts as a nurse late into the night when he was a child, and he knows her hard work has been supporting the family since his mother was a child.

“It’s an amazing story, honestly,” he said. “I definitely don’t take it for granted.

“I mean all the time, everything that I do really, I think back to her sacrifices and the things that she’s gone through to give me a better life. The thing is, I know she was thinking about that as she was spending long nights at the hospital taking however many shifts she was taking.”

Daniel made the most of what his family has done for him. When West Virginia’s first satellite, STF-1, is launched by NASA this summer, it carries a payload that Daniel worked on as a student. When Daniel graduated in May, he already had a job at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global management consulting firm. He landed it after interning with the company alongside hundreds of students from around the country.  

“I mean all the time, everything that I do really, I think back to [my grandmother's] sacrifices and the things that she’s gone through to give me a better life.”–ROSHAN DANIEL

As a new alumnus himself, Daniel is aware of the community and opportunities he’s gotten from other Mountaineers.

“The alumni of the past have progressed WVU to a place where even a minority Indian student whose parents are not from America can gather a community and become anything, not just Homecoming King or treasurer,” Daniel said. “But I really believe that the work that people have done in the past at WVU has opened up opportunities in the University and outside in the whole world for me.

“So just a big ‘Thank You’ – thank you for getting us to where we are today. And I look forward to continuing that for future Mountaineers.”

Roselyn Edinam Kumazah at Coopers Rock State Forest.

Roselyn Edinam Kumazah

Hometown: Gaithersburg, Md.
Major: Criminology

In a circle under the trees at Towers, Roselyn Edinam Kumazah and her classmates were beating drums. They had gotten an early start on their freshman year in the Academic STARS program of the Center for Black Culture and Research, and the summer was nearing its end.

They were about to join nearly 30,000 classmates at WVU, a population that is about 4 percent African American. But they had an edge. They had found each other first. And they had spent time with African-American literature, watched “Roots,” and ended their time together with rites of passage that connected them to their ancestors in Africa.

Surrounded by her new brothers and sisters, Kumazah felt that, for a few minutes anyway, she was back in Ghana.

She remembers as a child in Ghana waiting every two years for her father to return to his family for a visit while he worked in the United States.

“Before he leaves, he always says, ‘I promise I’ll be back,’” Kumazah recounts. “‘Don’t worry, I’m gonna come get you.’”

When she was 8, that time came. She didn’t understand that it was a permanent move, saying goodbye to her friends and teachers, and thinking she would be back soon. She hasn’t returned to Ghana since, but she hopes to visit in 2018 after she graduates.

It is Kumazah’s father who impresses upon his seven children – Kumazah is the oldest – the value of an education. He stopped attending college so that he could more quickly earn a living and bring his family over to the U.S. 

“He sacrificed a lot of his education and his time to bring us here, so that’s why he’s very education-oriented,” she said. “He loves education.”

She’s a rising senior studying criminology because she’s interested in “what makes people do the things they do.” She wants to work with juvenile delinquents in the criminal justice system or outside of it to prevent them from returning to incarceration. She’s also a McNair Scholar, a program that supports first-generation college students or those from underrepresented groups. As a McNair scholar, she’s focusing her research on sexual assault on college campuses.

Roselyn Edinam Kumazah at Coopers Rock State Forest.


She’s so busy outside of classes, leading the African Students Association and visiting other student organizations on campus, that she jokingly says: “I don’t even know what fun is anymore.” But she does have fun with friends, making dinner with her roommates and laughing. She knows how to celebrate, and she knows how to be there for her fellow students when times are more serious.

“Just be positive, have hope, have faith and everything’s going to be OK.”– ROSELYN EDINAM KUMAZAH

This spring, she listened to students who were concerned at how new visa restrictions could affect their lives. Do they travel? Do they not travel? Do they tell their friends to apply to study in the U.S.?

“It’s tough,” she said. “It’s a lot to swallow when you hear them crying in your arms like that.”  

So she did what she could do: listen, pray and tell them it would be OK.

“Just pray, have faith, have hope, keep your head up – just be positive,” she told them. 

“Because right now if you’re negative, it’s only going to bring you down, probably bring your grades down, stress you and your family, so I think just be positive, have hope, have faith and everything’s going to be OK.”

Abdulah AL-Abdulelah at the Beechurst PRT station.

Abdulah AL-Abdulelah

Hometown: Saad AL-Abdullah, Kuwait
Major: Accounting

A few days before his classes started, Abdulah AL-Abdulelah went to the Mountainlair main desk.

He’d recently arrived from Kuwait and had a lot of questions. Where was the Intensive English program located on campus? Where are some good places for adventure? Where is the gym, and what does it cost?

He thought he’d get some directions and find out the times the buildings opened, and that would be it. Instead, the woman at the desk helped him with finding forms, answered the questions he had and anticipated questions he didn’t have yet.

“The front desk was the first thing that gave me a good background about the culture here,” he said.

That’s how he started thinking of Mountaineers: Welcoming.

On his first day in Morgantown, he was cold, without a coat and had his newly reclaimed luggage, which had been lost by an airline. He didn’t know anyone, and it was snowing.

At the Morgantown Airport, a woman came up to him and asked if he were new around here. He was. He had been born in Toledo, Ohio, but left as a 2-year-old. After living his life in the desert of Kuwait, West Virginia winter was new, as was being surrounded by mostly English speakers.

So this woman, who was named Emily, spoke to him in Arabic, gave him her number and told him if he needed help with anything, to give her a call. With Emily’s help, he started to get familiar with the town, and he eventually found an apartment and was ready for his first class.

In the Intensive English program – the first stop for students who, like AL-Abdulelah, have spent their lives speaking languages other than English – he learned the language and improved his pronunciation by talking to his instructors during office hours, which grew into friendships with them. He even ended up being invited to an instructor’s wedding.  

“The front desk was the first thing that gave me a good background about the culture here.”– ABDULAH AL-ABDULELAH

AL-Abdulelah shares a lot in common with the 2,263 international students who were enrolled in fall 2016, learning English and discovering a new culture, all alongside students from across the world.

In fall 2015, the year with the most recent international statistics available, the top five countries international WVU students came from were: Saudi Arabia with 255 students, Taiwan with 187 students, India with 181 students, Kuwait with 88 students and Brazil with 77 students.

Along with them and many others, he’s figuring out the quirks of living in America. He got to know the PRT, which isn’t something that has an equivalent in Kuwait, or most anywhere in the world. He’s figured out the self-checkout at Kroger. And he’s learned that, unlike in Kuwait where a red light means “do not move at all,” here you can sometimes turn on a red light, which is partly why he’s put off learning to drive.

Abdulah AL-Abdulelah at the Beechurst PRT station.

One of AL-Abdulelah’s first connections who opened up a world of friendships was a Chinese friend who helped him to meet international students from Cuba, Italy, Spain and beyond. That friend’s father ran a school in China. One day AL-Abdulelah, at the friend’s request, made an online call with the students at that school so they could learn about his culture. Someone asked if they rode camels and lived in tents in the desert.

He covers his face with his hand as he recounts this: “No, not like that.”

The sophomore who one day wants to get a PhD and become a college professor showed the students that he lives in a house. He showed them pictures of the cities and that people there drive cars.

Video calling has become a way for him to stay in touch with family back home and the friends he’s made here. When he’s in Morgantown, he misses his family. But when he’s back in Kuwait, he misses WVU.

“When I go to my country, I miss Morgantown like for real,” AL-Abdulelah said. “I feel like, man, it’s just like my home right now. I just want to go there again. I miss that snow. I miss that moody weather, like it’s snowing one day, then hot one day, and cloudy one day.”

Ahmad Dakhlallah at Marilla Park in Morgantown.

Ahmad Dakhlallah

Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Major: Immunology and Medical Microbiology

Across WVU’s campus, there are conversations in the first steps to meeting someone that go something like this:

Where you from?


What’s your name?


“And he goes, ‘That doesn’t sound too American.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, originally my family’s from Palestine, but I’m from Ohio.’”

Ahmad Dakhlallah recounts this with a laugh at the end. Usually he just sticks to Ohio, the place he’s lived the longest. He’s got the mannerisms of an American kid who plays basketball, goes bowling and likes hanging out at the mall a lot. And his family is from a place he’s never been and that he can’t visit.

“I want to,” he says quietly, “but with the conflict there I can’t.”

He hasn’t met the part of his family who still live in Palestine, but the rest live in Jordan, where his parents left to pursue careers in the U.S. 

Because he spent his last year of high school in Morgantown, he fits with the townies. Because he is Muslim, he fits with the hometown Muslims and the Persian Gulf students. And because the California-born kid has lived and visited so many places, he connects quickly with students from all over. The others from Ohio. The international students. And that one kid from California whose goal was to live in the cold among the hills.

“I’m proud to be a part of the Mountaineer family. We have a great community, an open community, a welcoming community.”– AHMAD DAKHLALLAH

Dakhlallah’s parents landed in New York, then traveled to California where he was born and quickly to Colorado. For most of his life, he lived in Columbus, except for his junior year of high school, which is when he lived in Kuwait. He ended up at WVU in part because his mother – a research assistant professor at WVU who studies pulmonary fibrosis – wanted to come back to the States for his college education, and also because her former boss at the Ohio State University, Clay Marsh, is now the vice president and executive dean for Health Sciences at WVU.

Dakhlallah is a rising sophomore in the Immunology and Medical Microbiology pre-med program, but he’s seen enough of WVU to know how he feels about this place.

“I’m proud to be a Mountaineer,” he said. “I’m proud to be a part of the Mountaineer family. We have a great community, an open community, a welcoming community. I want to spend four-plus years here.”

Growing up in the States meant having Arabic main courses with some chicken nuggets. Cheeseburgers – with a side of hummus. It meant that you went to Friday prayer, just without the dress that some men wear for the occasion.

He, his brother and his two sisters spoke Arabic at home, since his parents wanted them to be bilingual, and then English outside of the home so they fit in with American culture.

Ahmad Dakhlallah at Marilla Park in Morgantown.

Sometimes, he’s been afraid. Even recently his family has heard racial slurs or some variation of these: “Go back to your country. You don’t belong here. We’re going to kick you out.”

When that happens, he feels like some are trying to make them feel like a lower class of people. He doesn’t want to show fear. He’s proud to be Muslim. And he belongs here.

Elsewhere, being American gives him a higher status. Family and friends seek them out and ask them to bring back American brands.

The chance for a better life was why his family came to the U.S. in the first place.

Dakhlallah says: “It’s that American dream everyone’s talking about over there.”

Elizabeth Dang at the Nath Sculpture Garden at the Art Museum of WVU.

Elizabeth Dang

Hometown: Morgantown, W. Va. 
Major: Industrial Engineering and Chinese Studies

Elizabeth Dang’s mom would pack her a cold lunch for school with fried rice, noodles or other staple Cantonese dishes.

When it came time for lunch at North Elementary School in Morgantown, W.Va., her food became a conversation point.

“My friends I was sitting with, they would be like: ‘What is that? What are you eating? Why are you eating that? That’s kind of weird.’”

She felt self-conscious in these moments.

“Here they are with their Lunchables and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and here I am eating my fried rice with my spoon,” Dang says with a laugh.

As an adult, Dang has fully embraced her Chinese heritage. She’s an American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s, when “America was always the dream in China,” she says.

She spoke Cantonese at home, and at WVU she learned Mandarin, the official language of China. Navigating both dialects showed her that Cantonese speakers will sometimes try to twist their words around so that it sounds like Mandarin. They might be understood 50 percent of the time. Either way, it’s always funny.

As she’s watched her mom’s devotion to her parents, Dang envisions a future for herself that is Chinese when it comes to family. 

“I’ve always been really close to my mom, and I know for a fact when I get older, I’m going to be living with her,” Dang said. “That may have been because of the influence that I’ve seen from my mom to her parents. Even though she’s not living with them right now, I can see how much she really cares about them.”

Since her parents’ divorce, Dang and her brother were raised by their mother, who worked in a grocery store to provide for the family. Dang remembers all the friends and relatives who helped her family in hard times. It’s made her give back in turn. It’s why she sponsors a child in Ghana through World Vision and volunteers with Engineers Without Borders and why she volunteers at her old elementary school in the fourth grade where the students are learning Chinese.

Dang was able to study abroad in Beijing after she received the Benjamin Gilman Scholarship, a national program that provides funds for study abroad to low-income students who receive the federal Pell Grant. When she returned, she shared her experiences with fellow WVU students and encouraged them to seek out opportunities that are available for first-generation, minority and low-income students.

Elizabeth Dang at the Nath Sculpture Garden at the Art Museum of WVU.

Dang has witnessed many instances of American and Chinese relations as she’s shared her culture with her community. She was active in the Chinese Club, where members taught students and others how to make dumplings, write calligraphy and play mahjong, a tile game that uses strategies similar to the card game rummy.

For her Chinese studies capstone project, Dang compared authentic Cantonese cuisine with American Chinese food, which are not the same thing at all. Dang loves Chinese food. All of it. The not-so-authentic American Chinese food that she gets with her friends, (because, hey, cheese wontons and lo mein taste good). The buns and noodles she had in Beijing. And, most of all, the stir fry and old fire soup that her mom makes.

Dang is part of a small Chinese community in Morgantown that gathers for Chinese New Year and the Mooncake Festival, which is held during a full moon in autumn. When she was younger, Dang would play a violin solo and sing with other children.

“I would say back then if you weren’t Chinese it was really rare for you to be involved in something like that,” she said.

Recently, as she participates in the annual festivals with the Chinese Club, she’s noticed a lot of people participating who were not Chinese.

“That makes me really happy to see Morgantown just being more culturally diverse,” she said.

Dang started seeing American interest drift toward Chinese culture when she was in eighth grade and Mandarin was offered, which she became familiar with that year and in later high school classes. At WVU, she thought she would just minor in Chinese, but found herself getting so involved in the robust Chinese language and culture program – led by teaching associate professor Hannah Lin – that it became her second major.

“The work effort that [my classmates] put into Chinese is absolutely amazing to me, and I think it’s awesome that they have that passion.”– ELIZABETH DANG

Dang, an Honors College student who is graduated this spring with degrees in industrial engineering and Chinese studies, has a job as a manager with a Target distribution center. She wants to one day return to China to work, probably after getting an MBA. Her industrial engineering courses showed her the processes businesses can use to improve. She knows both Chinese and American language and culture. She sees an opportunity for American companies to sell in China, and she wants to be a bridge to make that happen.

“The demand in China is crazy just with the amount of people that they have. Whenever that market starts to have an interest in you, you’re golden,” Dang said. “If Chinese people start wanting your products, you’re good to go.”

She also sees a lot of room for improvement to help Americans capture that market before other countries do.

“I feel like with our generation and the generations after us, this type of partnership is just going to continue to grow and grow,” Dang said. “And if we continue to stay stubborn and just not learn about any other cultures other than ours in America, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

She knows it can be done. She’s watched her fellow students.

“The work effort that they put into Chinese is absolutely amazing to me, and I think it’s awesome that they have that passion,” she said. “That passion is so big for them. It’s enough for them to want to pursue a degree in Chinese and even become fluent in a language that they have never even heard of probably until they got to college.”