Last summer, Sam Bencheghib ’19 and his brother Gary spent two weeks navigating Indonesia’s polluted Citarum River on a kayak made of plastic bottles and bamboo.
When not stuck in plastic bergs, they paddled through the pollution and past carcasses of pigs, birds and dogs floating in the waterway, which more than 20 million Indonesians rely on for drinking, agricultural use and fishing.
The expedition was the first for Make A Change World, which the brothers created as a platform for environmental change. Their video series racked up millions of views and attracted the attention of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who pledged to clean up the Citarum. Another expedition around Bali this summer was again to draw attention to plastic pollution.
Bencheghib is among a growing number of Lehigh students, faculty and alumni who are engaged with the world and making an impact in myriad ways—through research, careers, philanthropic efforts, Lehigh’s study abroad and Iacocca International Internship programs, Mountaintop/Creative Inquiry projects and other efforts.
“Lehigh’s vision statement challenges the university to prepare students to engage with the world and to live lives of meaning,” said Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs. “In meeting with alumni, I’m reminded that this is not just rhetoric. Many of our graduates are making an impact in their home countries and in addressing global issues.”
More than 40 percent of Lehigh’s undergraduates will have a study abroad or international experience before graduating. The university also is expanding its efforts to grow opportunities for faculty and students with partnerships, now numbering 70-plus. The Lehigh-United Nations Partnership, for example, allows more than 1,500 faculty, staff and students to attend UN conferences, briefings and meetings annually.
Meanwhile, about 1,100 international students attend Lehigh, representing 85 countries.
In addition to Bencheghib, the Bulletin recently talked with Rafael Dasso ’93 ’22P and Seraj Elalem ’17, who, after graduating from Lehigh, returned home determined to make a difference, and Vera Partem ’06, a U.S. diplomat engaged in meaningful work overseas. Here are their stories.
Seraj Elalem’s country of Libya was in turmoil.
It was February 2011. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had lost control of Elalem’s hometown of Benghazi, and people were in the streets protesting the government. At night, Elalem says, people burned tires, chanted anti-Gaddafi songs and spray-painted slogans on walls. The military garrison fired on the demonstrators in Benghazi, killing many.
Elalem ’17 joined the protests, temporarily leaving his job as a language teacher.
“There were guns,” he says. “It took a lot of courage, or idiocy, to march with police all over the place.”
In the three days before Benghazi was “liberated”—when Gaddafi’s main forces either turned on him or escaped the city—electricity and internet were cut. Elalem knew the pro-democracy protesters needed help from the rest of the world, but with limited internet access, it wasn’t going to be easy to let people outside the country know what was happening.
Elalem figured out the best way he could help. “I am more useful tweeting in English than holding a gun,” he thought at the time.
He partnered with a media center and began connecting foreign journalists to interpreters as international media poured into the area. Before the major news outlets arrived, it was people like Elalem who helped spread the news about the demonstrations to the rest of the globe.
Elalem continued teaching in 2012, then did a brief stint as an assistant with the British Embassy in weapons counterproliferation. But the political unrest and experience of participating in protests still made Elalem think back to his days teaching English to different age groups, including some classes for underprivileged children. He remembered seeing people’s lives change and their opportunities grow by learning English. Each year he had impacted about 150 students’ lives, he says. How many could he reach as a principal, district supervisor or minister of education? He decided to enter an educational leadership program.
Elalem applied for the Fulbright-U.S. Student Program, which led him to Lehigh in August 2015. (Lehigh is one of the top Fulbright receiving universities in the country.)
While the College of Education’s exceptional reputation weighed into his decision to study at Lehigh, he says, the campus and its relationship with the surrounding community meant just as much. In Libya, the schools and universities are literally surrounded by walls, he says.
“The first time I saw Lehigh’s campus, I was like, ‘I can’t really see the wall,’” Elalem says. “‘Where’s the gate? Where’s the entrance to this university?’ You can’t really tell where the university ends and the city begins. It feels like a part of the community, not just a walled-off institution [like] I grew up with them.”
Elalem loved that he had the flexibility to tailor courses to his needs. He replaced those that were beneficial only to U.S. educators with courses he would be able to integrate upon returning home, such as immigration in education and data-based decision-making.
He also enjoyed evaluation in the form of projects instead of exams. Rather than being assessed the same as students hoping to enter the American education system, he was able to display his knowledge on topics that would be pertinent on his return to Libya.
For instance, when he had to do a project on reframing and restructuring an organization, he picked the Libyan Ministry of Education as a case study.
“It made sense to me,” Elalem says. “It was an organization I had a general understanding of. My professor was very understanding. And it continued the same for all the other courses.”
For his program evaluation course, he chose Rugby 2018, a youth program in Libya he helped develop.
Also important, Elalem says, were social events and cultural clubs at Lehigh, which helped him connect with international students outside the education program.
“Just sitting down and talking with someone about their experiences and their life is world-changing for someone who comes from such a monoculture country such as me,” he says.
After finishing at Lehigh in May 2017 and returning to Libya the following month, Elalem had two countrywide goals: start a principal training program—teaching leadership skills—and create extracurricular programs for students.
In Libya, Elalem says, nobody specifically trains to be a school administrator. He says educators teach for 15 to 20 years and then become a principal. Their experience in creating lesson plans and teaching is much different from their tasks as principal, which include managing staff and budgets, as well as developing new programs, he says.
Elalem hopes to eventually persuade the Ministry of Education to set up training programs, but for now, he sees the most change coming from the private sector. That’s where Elalem is, conducting research for improving results as an administrator.
Five years ago, Elalem helped start Rugby 2018, with the ultimate goal of developing an Under 20 youth national team to play in the 2018 African Youth Games. They fell short of that objective, but as the program grew, rugby was no longer the sole focus. Elalem and others in charge made sure teamwork and cooperation were just as much of a priority to help the children grow socially.
He wants to create similar experiences in schools. Rugby would be easiest since he’s familiar with it, he says, but he’s open to anything.
“Here in Libya, violence means that kids are going to end up joining some military group or ISIS,” Elalem says. “An extracurricular program would do wonders. Children absolutely need them.”
While Elalem works on change in the private sector using what he learned at Lehigh as a Fulbright scholar, he also tries to educate fellow Libyans on topics including racism and women’s rights with videos in Libyan Arabic. He started a YouTube channel, which has over 6,600 subscribers, with his wife in 2017, when he was still in the United States. Their most popular video, which discusses DNA analysis, garnered 186,000 views.
Following in the footsteps of two uncles, Rafael Dasso ’93 ’22P had come to Lehigh in the late 1980s to study marketing in the College of Business and Economics during what he called “a very complicated time” in Peru’s history—inflation had risen to triple digits, unemployment was high, and terrorism was rampant. The rebel group Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, was particularly brutal and committing atrocities in an attempt to assert power.
“It was one of the worst times for the country,” he says. “My parents were concerned, so they gave me the opportunity to go to the United States [for an undergraduate degree].” But, he says, “I always intended to go back to Peru, to my country. I was very young, so I was very optimistic that things could change.”
By his senior year at Lehigh, things were changing in Peru, with a new president taking steps to fight terrorism and restructure the economy.
That’s when Dasso got a call from Peruvian businessman Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor, who, he says, invited him to join Intercorp, which had just acquired a small branch office of Bank of America in Peru. He says Rodriguez-Pastor was trying to build a network of successful Peruvians studying and working in the United States who would return home to help build a stronger middle class and a brighter future for Peruvian families.
With the change in Peru’s political leadership and its economy improving, Dasso decided to take the opportunity to work for Intercorp—which has since grown into a collection of businesses that include not only banks but also pharmacies, shopping malls, movie theaters and supermarkets. After Lehigh, he returned to Peru with a renewed optimism to work with Rodriguez-Pastor and his father.
“I had a chance to travel while in the U.S.,” says Dasso, who later obtained his MBA at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “And I saw the opportunity to take some business ideas back to my country.”
In the 25 years since then, Intercorp has grown to about 80,000 employees, with Dasso helping to introduce the concept of retail malls and movie theater chains to Peruvians. Currently he is chief executive officer of the retail pharmacy chain InRetail Pharma, the largest pharma conglomerate with operations in four countries in South America, and he serves as chairman of the board of Cineplanet, the movie theater chain he co-founded within Intercorp. He is also a member of the board of directors of Real Plaza, Intralot and NG Restaurantes. Previously, Dasso was chief executive officer of a number of entities, including Cineplanet.
In 2011, Intercorp took on a new challenge—Peru’s educational system, in response to the poor academic performance of students in grades K-12. (Peru routinely scored near the bottom of international student assessments of 15-year-olds by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) Dasso says that Peru’s public schools were inadequate, and its private schools, while better, were expensive.
In response, Intercorp worked with the California-based design firm Ideo to develop Innova Schools, a network of private schools priced for the emerging middle class that aims to elevate academic learning in Peru. The schools emphasize academic excellence through teacher-led, project-based digital learning.
“The big bottleneck in Peru is education,” says Dasso, recognizing that a strong education can raise standards of living and increase opportunities for families. “We needed to invest in education if we wanted to take our country to the next level.”
Dasso says the schools are having an impact in the five years they have been in operation. Intercorp made Fortune magazine’s “Change the World” list in 2015, which noted that 71 percent of Innova’s second graders had tested proficient in math in 2014, compared with 26 percent nationally; and 85 percent met literacy thresholds, compared to 44 percent nationally.
In June, Lehigh’s College of Education entered a partnership with Innova Schools to help train teachers for its network. (Dasso had introduced Lehigh faculty to the Innova Schools’ leadership in April.) COE faculty will help develop syllabi and plan several courses for a new undergraduate liberal arts college that is being established to train teachers. Among the proposals are courses in content area methods, teacher personal and professional identity, special education, diversity, family-school partnerships and instructional planning.
Dasso reflects on Lehigh as a formative time for him when he worked “very hard” at his academics and forged friendships with fellow students and faculty alike. He still marvels at the accessibility of faculty, who readily provided help, if needed.
“I grew very fast in those four years,” says Dasso, who believes he became much more independent while at Lehigh. “I grew personally, professionally. It opened my mind a lot.”
What Lehigh taught him, he says, was this: “If you study, if you work hard, you can make it.”
Like many students who take a vacation over their summer break, Sam Bencheghib ’19 went to the beach following his 2018 spring semester at Lehigh. In fact, he spent just over a week sailing around an exotic island.
Although for Bencheghib, it was no vacation.
His goal was to circumnavigate his former home island of Bali with his brother Gary, two youth activists and a filmmaker from Spain. While eventually a success, Bencheghib had trouble getting the voyage under way, admittedly underestimating the high seas they would face.
Bencheghib spent five weeks building a boat from sustainable materials that operated on solar panels and wind power, but it began to sink after 15 minutes on water. The boat consisted of two jukungs—traditional fishing boats—tied together to serve as hulls for a catamaran with a bamboo platform in between.
It was back to shore, and the drawing board. Bencheghib disassembled his original creation to help repurpose an older jukung. Built in a week, the second attempt still used materials made out of bamboo and recycled wood. It wasn’t fully powered by renewable energy, using a combination of two solar panels and a 20-horsepower motor, but it worked.
During the eight-day voyage, he says, every beach he saw had plastic pollution. The crew met with people in local communities to educate them on the dangers of that pollution and ways to help. One youth activist collected samples of water throughout the trip for microplastics tests.
Born in Paris, Bencheghib moved to Bali at the age of 7 and lived there until he was 15. He and his brother recognized the beauty of the island, but also realized how much trash and plastic polluted the beaches. They created Make A Change Bali to organize friends for weekly beach cleanups. Sometimes it would just be Bencheghib and his brother; other times they’d have close to 100 people.
Prior to attending Lehigh, Bencheghib headed to Barcelona to attend a tennis academy while his brother went to New York Film Academy. Instead of letting Make A Change Bali dissolve, the brothers decided to try to extend their reach globally.
With his brother’s film background, the two created videos and changed the name of their cleanup efforts to Make A Change World. They began with a series of 30 videos, filming a different person in Bali every day for a month who was making a difference in the island’s environment. When one video hit five million views, the brothers knew Make A Change World was worth their time.
“Since then we’ve been making videos promoting sustainable solutions and innovations against plastic pollution and trying to raise awareness to live a more sustainable life,” Bencheghib says.
Bencheghib is still working on his degree in management and playing tennis at Lehigh, but tries to spend at least an hour a day contributing to the effort, while his brother, back in Bali, works on the project full-time.
Expeditions are central in their efforts to raise awareness. Their first adventure, down Indonesia’s Citarum River in plastic bottle kayaks last summer, made a huge impact.
The brothers wanted to kayak the most polluted river in the world, and when a Google search revealed it was in West Java, the island next to Bali, they began planning. They built the kayaks and took a two-week journey down the Citarum that provided jaw-dropping visuals.
“Sometimes we were just stuck in plastic bergs,” Bencheghib says. “We couldn’t even move.”
And because it was Indonesia’s dry season, Bencheghib says you could see almost 30 feet of buried plastic along the riverbanks.
In addition to the trash and plastic bags and bottles, Bencheghib says they were paddling among dead animals in a river about 20 million people rely on for drinking water, agricultural use and fishing.
By accident, Bencheghib proved the water wasn’t safe for swimming. After shedding his protective gear one hour into their voyage in the 100-degree heat, he fell in the Citarum. Despite washing off with a bottle of water, he remained itchy for three or four days.
The video series from the trip garnered millions of views on social media. They even caught the attention of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who told them he would create a seven-year plan to make the Citarum “the cleanest river” by mobilizing more than 7,000 people, including the Indonesian army, in cleanup efforts. Bencheghib said President Widodo also told them if Indonesia went to war, it would lose because it’s fighting plastic pollution.
“We realized that a shocking visual can have such a big impact on the world,” Bencheghib says.
By using bamboo and materials from shipwrecks, the brothers kept costs low. They use their own money to support their expeditions but also received funds this summer from Lehigh’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation and Parley for the Oceans, a group raising awareness for the oceans and trying to end the destruction of them. A company in Bali provided the solar panels, and Suzuki supplied the boat’s motor.
This past August, Bencheghib was invited to speak about both expeditions, Make A Change World and the effects of plastic pollution at the YSEALI Youth Marine Debris Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. The audience included the American ambassador to Indonesia.
The brothers have a number of ideas for their next adventure, possibly traveling down Africa’s most polluted river, the Niger Delta. Eventually, they want to visit the most polluted river in each continent.
When Bencheghib graduates, he plans to join his brother in working full-time on Make A Change World. He says he doesn’t plan on doing anything else until he can visit beaches and oceans that are free of plastic.
But the goal remains to have people create their own change. He encourages people to complete smaller projects in their communities and upload video of it to Make A Change World.
“We really want to become a platform for change when it comes to the environment,” Bencheghib says.
By her own description, Vera Partem ’06 is living the ultimate American dream.
Born in Lviv, Ukraine, she immigrated to the United States at age 10 from the former Soviet Union after her family was granted political asylum in the United States. She described the extensive Communist persecution that her family had faced: Her grandfather had spent many years in a Siberian labor camp, she says, and his older brother was murdered. Family members endured the Holodomor (Joseph Stalin’s man-made famine in the 1930s that had killed millions) and oppression for simply speaking in their native Ukrainian language.
When she arrived in the Philadelphia area and finally joined her mother in 1994 (after a three-plus-year separation to allow for paperwork processing), she did not speak English other than the basics, saying “hello,” counting to 10 and identifying colors.
Now, 12 years after graduating from Lehigh with a dual degree in biology and international relations, Partem is a U.S. diplomat who speaks six languages, including English, German and Ukrainian. Following confirmation by the U.S. Senate, she was sworn in as a foreign service officer by the Department of State in 2015 and received a signed certificate from President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry. (Her grandparents lived long enough to see her dream become an American reality.)
Partem’s first two-year overseas assignment was as a political officer focusing on human rights issues in Astana, Kazakhstan. (That assignment was completed in the summer of 2018.) Now in Washington, D.C., for additional training, she’ll head next to Warsaw, Poland.
“Over the last two years, I’ve been able to do a lot of meaningful work in Kazakhstan to advance our bilateral relationship,” Partem says. “I feel that I’ve truly made a difference because not only was I working on policy issues, but I was able to engage with civil society, government and nonprofit organizations to promote key American values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Those are paramount freedoms and core values for our country and must not be taken for granted.”
She has the added perspective of being an immigrant.
“That’s why I very strongly believe in what I do, because every day I get to make a difference and share our American values with counterparts overseas, who often look to America as a global leader, while also learning from them what is necessary to make our country-to-country relationship stronger and lasting,” she says.
Partem was considering a career in the medical field when she first came to Lehigh. She had fallen in love with the university “immediately” on a campus tour, and later fully engaged in student life, working as a Gryphon/resident-advisor, hosting minority and international students on campus and serving as a certified EMT volunteer. She also co-founded Lehigh’s medical society. She was drawn to Lehigh, she says, because of its strong academics, “personal touch,” and the welcoming attitudes of the students, faculty and staff she met on her visit.
The fact that Lehigh invested in her and provided her with a world-class education and networking opportunities, she says, “really drove me to succeed and pay it forward.”
After graduation, Partem weighed her options carefully, given the high cost of a medical education for a single family household with little opportunity for scholarships. With her extensive language skills, she instead took a job at a law firm in Philadelphia, where she worked as a consultant in the executive compensation division and often contributed her language and translation skills to the firm’s pro bono work on immigration cases. While Partem still intended to apply to medical schools, a mentor who noticed her language skills and unique overseas experiences encouraged her to pursue her passion for international relations and apply for fellowships that would guide her graduate education toward a career in diplomacy.
“I looked into those opportunities, and the rest is history,” she says.
In 2011, Partem completed a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship in Tbilisi, Georgia, and in 2013, she was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania for her master’s in politics and public administration. In 2013, she was also selected for the prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Graduate Fellowship (the highly selective program chose only 20 graduate fellows per year at the time to prepare a new generation of global leaders to promote positive global change). She says the fellowship aims to ensure that the U.S. diplomatic corps better reflects the diversity that is the strength of the nation.
She and her colleagues—who are from varied ethnic, racial, social and geographic backgrounds—are like the “stitches of a quilt” in representing all that is the United States, she says.
“We are diverse in background, gender, region and even national origin. ... yet, we are all Americans,” she says. “We have to make sure that we remember that we are the face of America, and there’s a certain level of responsibility with that. We are not only showing who we are, but quite often we are the first American that a foreigner interacts with.”
In joining the Foreign Service, Partem says, “I really wanted to make sure I set my path on a career that was not only worthwhile, but one that was meaningful, rewarding and that would make a lasting impact.”
Perhaps in a full-circle moment or twist of fate, Partem will now serve two years as a diplomat in Poland, which she passed through as a young girl two decades earlier on her way to America.
In conversations about her diplomatic work, her passion is evident.
“Quite often, my own colleagues say to me that they feel I’m an extremely patriotic Ukrainian American, and they see the passion that I have for the work that I do,” Partem says. “That’s very true because I’m proud of my Ukrainian American roots. The melding of those two backgrounds is what made me, today, who I am and allowed me to value the opportunities and freedoms we have in the United States, no matter how imperfect at times.”
Though often working overseas, Partem remains very connected to Lehigh, which she credits with her successes and putting her on her current trajectory. She served on Lehigh’s Young Alumni Board for several years and now is a director-at-large for the Lehigh University Alumni Association.
“The very fact that an immigrant from a single-parent income household ... can overcome the often-insurmountable challenges to become a diplomat in a country like the United States speaks to the American dream and to the opportunities that the United States offers,” says Partem, who became a naturalized citizen in the mid-2000s. “Quite frankly, none of that would be possible without the foundation of a Lehigh education, and of course, the hard work, constant support and unwavering grit, resilience and determination to succeed.”
Story by Mary Ellen Alu and Stephen Gross
Illustrations by Tonwen Jones