Special Features — 05 September 2014
International students coming to change their world, and, in time, the world of others

They’re coming to America – and South Florida specifically – for reasons as diverse as the geography, culture and politics of their native countries. They’re coming with a desire to make a better – and often safer – life for themselves and their families. They’re coming to immerse themselves in new cultures, to become doctors and business entrepreneurs, to wield a tennis racquet or kick a soccer ball. They also share something in common: They covet the highly valued prize of an American college education.

 Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Meet a few of South Florida’s current international students and recent graduates who came here hoping to change their world and, in time, the world of others.

By Dave Wieczorek

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

Brian Guzman, a graduate of Plantation High and Lynn University, knows firsthand the horrific grief inflicted by kidnappers. In his hometown of Bogota, Colombia, Guzman’s grandfather was grabbed by members of the National Liberation Army, guerrillas classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The guerrillas had learned that Guzman’s father was a vice president in a big insurance company, making him and his family targets for ransom. The grandfather suffered a stroke, causing brain damage, and was later released by the guerrillas.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

“The guerrillas said they would kidnap me unless my father paid them a monthly rate,” Guzman says. One attempt to snatch the then-11-year-old boy from a bus stop was foiled by the family’s cleaning lady.

“My mom and dad said, ‘This is it. We have to go to the states.’ ” 

The Guzmans now live in Sunrise. Brian’s father works for a bank. His mom owns a jewelry business. Brian graduated from Lynn with a bachelor’s in hospitality management in 2013 and earned his MBA in August.

“With Lynn it was love at first sight, because of the diversity,” Guzman says. “Being at Lynn has been an eye-opener because of all the cultures. One in four students is from a different country. My best friend is from Zimbabwe. When I left Colombia I told friends, ‘I’ll come back in a year. Don’t worry.’ Now, more than 10 years later, I’m still here.”

TOWARD A BETTER LIFE

Civil unrest and danger spills across many borders. Just listen to 21-year-old Venezuelan Estefania Mathison Valles, a second-year student at Broward College.

“My country is going through a terrible situation right now. The government is taking over everything, and leaving us without anything,” she says. “When you go to the supermarket you can’t find toilet paper. You can buy only one liter of milk per family per week. There’s a lot of insanity, and it’s very insecure. After 6 p.m. nobody leaves their house. It’s not the kind of life a college student – or anyone – should have.”

Venezuela has been embroiled in protests and violence over President Nicolas Maduro’s government almost since the day he was elected in 2013.

 Valles’ father, a U.S. citizen, works for an electronics-manufacturing firm and lives in Parkland.

 “I told him, ‘I can’t make it,’ ” Valles says. “Every time I went out of my house I was extremely nervous about whether something was going to happen to me. I told my dad, ‘I can’t do this any more.’ ”

When “one of my best friends was kidnapped and killed” by a gang, Valles knew it was time to head to America. She enrolled at Broward College in August 2013 and moved in with her father. (Her mother and older sister still live in Caracas.)

Valle now concentrates on completing her education, not wondering if there are kidnappers around the next corner. She will earn an associate degree in the arts in May 2015 and then hopes to enroll in the nursing program at the University of Florida.

“My country is amazingly beautiful, and I’d love to go back someday,” Valles says. “But in the situation Venezuela is in right now, it’s not realistic to go back when I came here running from it.”

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Bernard Londoni’s family fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001, trekking from the eastern part of the country to the south, through Burundi to Zambia and then Zimbabwe, to escape the violence of the now decades-long civil wars that began in the 1990s. 

“We walked on foot more than 500 miles,” Londoni recalls. “Everybody was running away from the rebels. We sometimes ran into crossfire, where the government forces and rebels clashed right there in the neighborhood where we were hiding. We put ourselves on the ground and protected ourselves as best we could. It was tough to witness this violence and atrocity. You couldn’t believe it. Really unimaginable.

“I look at myself today and say, ‘Twenty years ago I was running from one place to another, a guy who has lost everything,’ and now I’m doing my Ph.D. in a powerful country like the United States. It is a blessing.”

While in Zimbabwe in 2004, Londoni met a counselor from Lynn University in Boca Raton who was recruiting students. 

“I said, ‘Look, I’m interested in coming to the United States to study, but being a refugee, I can’t afford to pay anything, even one dollar.’ ”

He was offered Lynn’s Presidential Scholarship.

“A full ride,” says Londoni, 36. “It was shocking. I became the first member of my family to attend a university.”

Londoni arrived in South Florida in 2005, earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies in 2009 and is now a doctoral candidate at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. He is also a security analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa at iJET International in Maryland.

“You come to a country where you know nobody, and in the end you become somebody,” Londoni says. “Lynn University saved my life.”

“THE BEST DECISION  I’VE EVER MADE”

Chiara Espinal didn’t hesitate when given the chance to do some island hopping.

“I’m the first person in my family to graduate with a master’s degree. That was important because we thought it would bring more opportunity for our family as a whole,” says Espinal, who earned an MBA in 2013 from Nova Southeastern University’s Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship. 

Espinal, a native of St. Maarten, is now NSU’s assistant director of annual giving. Her first step was coming to South Florida in 2006, earning a bachelor’s degree at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami.

“It was important to pursue educational opportunities outside of our island,” she says. “Our island is so small there are not any universities. You have to leave.”

Not that that was easy for someone as family oriented as Espinal.

“My intense desire to succeed and make my loved ones proud provided me with the courage I needed at 17 to move to another country on my own,” she says. “It was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I can still recall my mother’s expression of worry and uncertainty and my father’s tears when he realized that his little girl was leaving.”

Her “educational journey was taken to new heights” when she enrolled in NSU’s MBA program and participated in a study-abroad program in Shanghai, China.

“Moving to the U.S. was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

 A HOME FOR THE HARD WORKING

For John Powell, sitting at home in Jamaica and hearing that he’d been awarded the prestigious Stamps Scholarship, his future was, well, stamped with a ticket to Barry University in Miami.

Founded by South Florida philanthropists, Penny and E. Roe Stamps, the full merit scholarship is awarded yearly to the brightest students and the most promising future leaders at 39 universities throughout the country. (Powell is the only international Stamps scholar.) That Powell is also a 2014 recipient of the Jamaican Prime Minister’s Youth Award for Excellence shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, least of all the modest Powell himself.

When it is suggested that he is a pretty bright guy, the sophomore replies: “I’m hard working.”

Powell, 20, who spent this summer assisting at Yale University’s EXPLO, a program designed to help high-school students carve a path for their futures, believes that hard work will lead him to becoming “an international commercial lawyer and a translator. Hopefully, I can make it to the Supreme Court one day.” Asked to clarify does he mean the Jamaican or U.S. Supreme Court, Powell laughs and says: “Whichever one comes first. 

“I believe we should make our mark all over the world. If I am offered the opportunity to go to another country – Jamaica, America, Canada, England – and find my place there, that’s what I’ll do.”

SMART MOVES

The odds seemed stacked against Angela Skaff, a first-generation Canadian born to tradition-bound parents from Lebanon, enrolling in pharmacy school in South Florida. But that’s what happened, and a year from now people will call her Dr. Skaff.

“At first you’re humble about being called ‘Doctor,’ ” Skaff laughs, “but then you think, I slaved away for so many years, so I’m OK with Dr. Skaff.”

Skaff, 25, is in the final year of a four-year program to earn a Doctor in Pharmacy degree from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach. She is speaking during a break in a clinical rotation at the JFK Medical Center in Atlantis.

“Being from Lebanon, my parents are very traditional,” Skaff says. “As a girl, you don’t leave the house unless you’re married.”

But after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Ottawa, Skaff wanted a career. She “decided on pharmacy because you can test your knowledge and still have that patient-care access.”

Her options were limited though, with only a dozen or so pharmacy schools in all of Canada. There are at least eight in Florida alone.

“To get into pharmacy school in Canada is very difficult, not because you may not be a good student but because there are not enough seats. I have a cousin who is a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic [Associate Professor Elias Chahine, an infectious-disease specialist] and a grandmother in California, so I applied to schools in both states.”

Once accepted at PBA, she still faced her biggest challenge: her parents.

“I applied behind their backs” – she laughs – “so I said, ‘I’m already accepted. All you have to do is say yes.’ It took them a while to get used to the idea, but they’ve been very supportive and happy with the decision.”

Not that Dad didn’t try to keep his little girl a bit closer to home.

“What about a school in Ohio? We have cousins there,” her father implored.

“I was like, ‘Florida – Ohio? Come on.’ ”

THE  SPORTING LIFE

Linda Fritschken had just watched Germany defeat France 1-0 in World Cup action on television. It is 10:30 p.m. She could be celebrating the victory with friends in Berlin’s bars. Instead, she plans to call it an early night. She has an important tennis match in the morning.

“I can’t go out,” she says. “I’m in the finals.”

Fritschken takes her tennis seriously. She is a member of Barry’s 2014 NCAA Division II championship team, with winning titles at No. 3 singles and in doubles competition.

“We don’t have college teams in Germany, so we don’t have the opportunity where you can go to the university and continue playing tennis,” Fritschken says. “When I got the offer from Barry that I could study in Miami and play for this team at a really high level, I decided I would go to the U.S. I always wanted to play tennis where it’s hot 12 months of the year.” 

She signed the scholarship contract not knowing anything about Barry or her coaches. To the senior public relations-marketing double major, it was a no-brainer.

“In Germany you go to a public university and it’s more or less free. You pay maybe $200 per year,” Fritschken says. “It’s so expensive I could never have paid for my education in the U.S. When Barry offered a full scholarship, I decided right away, ‘All right, I will take that opportunity.’ ”

So far, she has made the most of that opportunity.

TAKING THE EXPERIENCES HOME

Mpumelelo Melusi Matutu “Melo,” as he is known to friends at Palm Beach Atlantic – was born and raised in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. An accomplished soccer player, he earned a scholarship to Division I Winthrop University in South Carolina. A knee injury reduced his effectiveness, so he decided to drop down a level in competition and transfer schools.

“I always wanted to go to a Christian school, so when PBA offered me scholarship money, I decided to come down here,” says Melo, a junior accounting major who works part time in the university’s admissions office. “I’ll be the first college graduate in my family.”

Such an education seemed a long shot back home in Zimbabwe.

“I come from a very underprivileged background. My family doesn’t have much, so they couldn’t afford to send me to college,” says Melo, 24. “After high school, I was at a point in my life I thought I would look for a job and then go to school later in life. I didn’t have a plan at that point. When I got the opportunity to come to the United States, play soccer and have my tuition taken care of, that was a great opportunity.”

He plans to stay in the U.S. long enough to earn his MBA, gain some business experience, and then return home.

“Eventually I want to settle down in Zimbabwe and invest in a business,” Melo says. “My focus and my heart are really back home and trying to help my community, where I see a great need for financial assistance and good ideas for business.”

A LIFETIME EFFECT

Editor’s note: A photo of Mansoor Niazi was not available at press time for the print version of the magazine. His story, however, appears in full here.

It’s noon in South Florida, and nearly 9 o’clock in the evening in Kabul, Afghanistan, as 26-year-old Mansoor Niazi answers questions via e-mail. He’s looking forward to starting MBA studies this fall on a Fulbright Scholarship at Lynn

Niazi’s family migrated to Pakistan and back to Afghanistan several times during the wars at home. As a result, “I have completed 12 years of school in more than seven schools. Each transfer from one school to another posed serious problems for me, and it would take months to catch up, and then I would have to move to another school.

“In addition, because of the instability and security issues, we lost our home a couple of times and faced enormous economic problems. War has affected everyone in Afghanistan. Many lives were lost.”

 Niazi, who has a business-administration degree from American University of Afghanistan, says that at this time in his life, Lynn is the perfect fit. 

“Lynn offers a strong program in mass communication and media management and that’s why I chose South Florida.”

He intends to run his “own media company upon my return in Afghanistan. I expect to bring quality and innovation to media in Afghanistan and hope my education at Lynn will help do that.”

Niazi already runs a nonprofit organization in Kabul, the Civil Society Development & Growth Organization, whose goal is to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society. That work is partly responsible for bringing Niazi to the attention of Lynn and the Fulbright committee.

Now the rest is up to him.

“I expect the environment, culture, people and the academics in Florida will have a lifetime effect on me.”

BY THE  NUMBERS

International undergraduates and graduate students from Albania to Zimbabwe enroll at South Florida colleges and universities every year. Here are estimated figures for the global students of five institutions:

Barry University
More than 500 undergraduates and graduate students, representing approximately 80 countries.

Broward College
More than 500 students, representing approximately 76 countries.

Lynn University
 More than 540 undergraduates and graduate students, representing approximately 89 countries.

Nova Southeastern University

 More than 1,210 undergraduates and graduate students, representing approximately 116 countries.

Palm Beach Atlantic University

 More than 150 undergraduates and graduate students, representing approximately 54 countries.

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