Applying to colleges is a hard enough task, but it was made even more difficult for Diana Gonimah when the political turmoil of Arab Spring in her home country, Egypt, briefly shut down communication with the outside world. Her high school closed for 20 days and she was barely able to call admissions officers in the U.S. to say, “Sorry, I can’t send my transcript for another month.”
Gonimah, born in Kuwait and raised in Egypt as the daughter of a Jordanian mother and Egyptian father, eventually received scholarship offers from six schools including the University of Pennsylvania, where she is now a sophomore majoring in psychology.
“When I logged on and found my 'Hurrah Hurrah' welcome note, I knew exactly where I was meant to be,” she says. Attached to her offer was a letter from the Penn World Scholars program.
The Penn World Scholars Program of the Office of the Provost provides scholarships to international students chosen for exceptional leadership potential, academic achievement and financial need. They receive financial support consistent with the most generous awards available to undergraduates.
“When the revolution happened I thought I would take a year off to be at home. But when I got my acceptance, that I was a Penn World scholar, I was getting all kinds of Penn welcome letters. My parents didn’t think it made sense to stay,” she says.
“There were many people trying to leave the country, but I wasn’t physically at risk,” says Gonimah, whose family lived in a Cairo suburb at the time. “I didn’t know what was going to happen the next day in Egypt. When that happened, it changed my perspective. That influenced my career path.”
Before coming to Penn, Gonimah, who speaks two dialects of Arab and is fluent in English and French, was an English-as-a-second-language tutor at an Egyptian orphanage, co-organizer of annual charity events and a performer in theater troupe productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Murder on the Nile.”
At Penn, her activities outside the classroom include reporting for The Daily Pennsylvanian and working with the Assembly of International Students and international PHINS, Peers Helping Incoming New Students. She mentors Penn students from Morocco, Mauritius, Egypt and Italy.
Gonimah is also a member of the Penn African Students Association. Representing Egypt, she participated in the first PASA pageant and was crowned Ms. PASA 2012. At the pageant she sang one of her father's favorite songs, "Helwa ya Balady," followed by
Adele’s "Someone Like You,” reflecting her love for multiculturalism.
Gonimah credits her father with instilling a sense of leadership in her and her mother with inspiring her to become active in public service.
“It made her happy to see me teach at a local orphanage,” Gonimah says.
Her mother is afflicted with multiple sclerosis and cannot walk.
“I would always ask God to help my mom walk,” she recalls. “It was hard growing up to realize that I would never get to see that.”
Attending Penn gives her hope.
“I recently wrote a [Daily Pennsylvanian] story about Penn collaborating with Novartis to study new therapies for cancer patients. It is beautiful to be at a school where there could someday be a cure for MS. I can take advantage of my time here to make a difference and direct my passion in the right places.”