two girls pose in front of pyramids

HDFS students share their knowledge in international competition

Trip to Egypt turns out to be both an academic and personal enrichment opportunity for two Scranton students.

DUNMORE, Pa. – A group of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) students from Penn State Scranton, led by Assistant Teaching Professor of HDFS Melissa LaBuda, recently made their mark in Cairo, Egypt, participating in the finals of a global competition against student teams from around the world. The event was organized by the Institute of International Education's Harnessing Innovation through Virtual Exchange for Enhanced Results (HIVER) program.

Ava Smargiassi, one of the students on the trip, shared her excitement about the unexpected journey.

“I never actually imagined myself going to Egypt (although it had always been my dream). One day I woke up and found out I was going. It was completely unexpected, but I am so thankful I got to have an experience like that.”

The students were initially part of an Experiential Digital Global Engagement (EDGE)  with An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine, which spanned six weeks. This collaboration set the stage for their entry into the HIVER competition, where they faced off against teams from around the world.

“We created a mental-health toolkit for healthcare professionals to assist those struggling with different mental illnesses. We found out we were advancing to the finals in Cairo, Egypt, after being chosen [one out of four] times from the semi-finals,” Smargiassi said. Eventually, they would earn a Participation Award, but they left Egypt with so much more.

The trip, which took place in the last week of May 2023, also provided the students with a week-long immersion into Egyptian culture and experiences that will last a lifetime. They gave a presentation on their trip to the Penn State Scranton campus community in November, sharing their photos and experiences.

Smargiassi highlighted her favorite experiences, which included making new friends from around the globe. 

“I loved making friends from different parts of the world. I learned so much about these people, and we all friended each other on different social media. I do still keep in touch with some of them, as they are experiencing really tough times in Palestine right now,” she said. 

Participating in a competition run by HIVER, the Penn State Scranton team presented a toolkit for mental health providers designed to aid individuals struggling with their mental health. 

“I gained a lot of insight on different cultures, but I also learned that we are all the same. Although we are all from different parts of the world, we are not so different at all,” Smargiassi said, reflecting on her experience.

LaBuda, who acted as a chaperone and provided feedback to the students, expressed pride in their growth. “Their final presentation made me very proud of them!” she exclaimed. 

LaBuda highlighted the challenges of coordinating virtually with the team, as they were the only group without students from their MENA region university attending in person.

LaBuda and the HDFS students credited Penn State Scranton's support, particularly from Penn State’s Global Programs and the Travel Safety Network, for making the trip possible. 

Reflecting on the cultural aspects, LaBuda noted the conservative nature of the culture, emphasizing the significance of religion and the challenges presented by the absence of in-person meetings.

For Smargiassi, the trip left a lasting impression. 

“To appreciate everything we have in America,” she said. “They don’t have nearly as many resources in Egypt as we do here. They don’t have clean or safe water, the same medical resources, widely accepted mental illnesses and resources for that as well.”

Smargiassi encourages students to “go for it” if they are able to get a similar experience. 

“I was terrified at the thought of going 5,000+ miles away with people I didn’t really know. Finally, I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up. I can actually say I got to see the Pyramids,” she said. 

As a campus, Penn State Scranton’s commitment to providing students with real-world experiences and global opportunities whenever possible was evident in the success and experiences of these students on their unexpected and enriching journey to Egypt.