Bridging the gap: Dual-citizen student aims to bring cultures together

Mary Abounabhan, then-sophomore in international business, pours some of the snacks that were provided at the Hump Day event hosted by the Union Program Council at Bosco Plaza in Manhattan, Kan. on May 4, 2016. (Photo by Emily Lenk | Collegian Media Group)

When she’s not tap dancing, learning Mandarin as a fourth language or busy with business classes, Mary Abounabhan is trying to bridge the gaps between people to show everyone that cultural gaps are things to be appreciated and explored, not feared and avoided.

The always-busy Abounabhan is a dual-citizen of Lebanon and the United States, a senior in business management with minors in Mandarin and dance, multicultural affairs director for the Student Governing Association, president of the International Buddies Program, president of the Chinese Language and Culture Club and a resident assistant for the Kansas State Honors House.

Abounabhan said she chose her major so she could meet new people and visit new places.

“I originally wanted to be a mechanical engineer with nuclear emphasis, because in Lebanon people are under the impression that to be successful you need to be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer,” Abounabhan said. “I decided that wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life … and a business major can be in any industry.”

Abounabhan said her love of crossing cultural boundaries is what motivates her.

“I love learning about different cultures and I always have, and I love traveling and meeting new people,” Abounabhan said.

Abounabhan said she wants to use her dual citizenship to bridge a gap she sees at K-State between two “bubbles” of people — people who are directly affected by racial and cultural issues, and the majority of people who either have no idea the issues are occurring or do not know the extent of their effects.

“People will look at me and say, ‘Oh you don’t have any problems, you’re white, you’re American,’” Abounabhan said. “But … when I’m walking on campus, and someone who’s a classmate of mine says, ‘Ugh, Arabs. I feel like I need a gun when I’m around them,’ because they didn’t know I was Arab. … That’s the problem.”

Similar events happened to Abounabhan in her childhood. In 2006, while she was on vacation in the United States from Lebanon, she was forbidden from purchasing a ticket to return to Lebanon because of the war between Lebanon and Israel. This forced Abounabhan and her family to stay in America for over three months, and she had to go to school in Colorado Springs.

Up until that point, Abounabhan said she had never considered herself a minority because she was also American. When people found out she was from Lebanon, the next day she received comments from her fellow fifth graders asking if she lived in a tent or owned any camels.

“I got called a hypocrite because I was eating pepperoni on a pizza,” Abounabhan said. “They said, ‘You’re a Muslim and you’re not even covered up and you’re eating pepperoni.’ I’m Christian, in Lebanon there’s actually quite a few Christians. … That definitely changed my perspective on how I saw the world, because in my mind America was this perfect place, it was everything I had seen on TV and I wanted to be a part of that.

“I had taken growing up in Lebanon for granted, so [that incident] shaped the way I approach different situations and different cultures,” Abounabhan continued. “It made me really interested in pursuing knowledge and curiosity about different cultures, and treating people with respect.”

In everything that Abounabhan does, her passion for people shines through. Carley Saunders, graduate student in counseling and student development, supervised Abounabhan as an Honors House RA for a year and a half.

“The residents of the Honors House absolutely adore her,” Saunders said.

Abounabhan always makes time for other people no matter how busy she is, and Saunders said she sometimes had to remind Abounabhan to make time for herself, too.

Julie Pentz, associate professor of dance, has taught Abounabhan since her freshman year. Pentz said Abounabhan serves as an inspiration to all the students around her.

“She fully integrates herself into the dance community, and that’s what I think is so special about Mary, that she’s ‘always on,’” Pentz said. “When you see that kind of passion, when you meet Mary, when you serve on a committee with her, when you work on a project with her, you may not want to drive in the same direction that she’s driving, but it’s definitely an inspiration to find your own thing.”

Tiffani Lawrence, senior in English education and theater, is a long-time friend of Abounabhan who refers to her as the “ultimate boss-lady.”

“She makes you want to pay attention with a positive energy,” Lawrence said. “She inspires me to be better at what I do. She is an example of someone who gives their all to everything that they do, and that can teach you things about how to be a better person.”

Amy Hall, student programs coordinator for the International Student Center and advisor for the International Buddies Program, said she has worked on many international programs at K-State with Abounabhan, and that many of the programs were ideas that Abounabhan was determined to bring to fruition.

“She doesn’t seem to have any limits to her interests, which is great because many times you see a student who is particularly focused on one thing … but Mary is everywhere, which is great,” Hall said. “She has the ability to really relate to anyone, and I think within the international involvement sector that is a very unique thing.

“So many of the events we have here are just about making people feel at ease and feel comfortable, and she can do that instantly,” Hall continued. “She’s not intimidated by anything and brings her true self to the table each time.”