When Mark Maximos arrived at Western, he was wrapping up a nearly 7,000 mile journey. The 22 year old is an international student from Cairo, Egypt who left home for the first time last year to study abroad for a year in Bellingham.
Double majoring in pharmaceutical sciences and marketing, Maximos is part of the Near East, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa [NESA] Undergraduate Exchange Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
“The whole program is about a culture experience where you go live in another country, push yourself out of your own comfort zones and get immersed in a new culture,” Maximos said.
NESA students also participate in community service and internship requirements. The goal is for students to develop a lifetime connection to the U.S. Department of State. Maximos is joined on campus by four other NESA students from Tunisia, Nigeria, Lebanon and Pakistan.
When he first arrived, Maximos said he felt like he was in a honeymoon phase, enthralled by his professors and the new friendships he established.
As the first two weeks came to an end and the novelty started to wear off, Maximos was hit with the realization that everything around him was different from his hometown.
“In Bellingham, everything is green outside. In Egypt, everything is yellow,” Maximos said.
While in Bellingham, Maximos experienced snow for the first time. Ironically, it also snowed in Egypt for the first time in 100 years while Maximos was away from home.
The drastic shift in cultural norms also took some adjustment. In Egypt, if someone offers you something, you have to reject it three times before you can say yes, even if it’s something you want. Maximos learned to adapt pretty quickly when his roommate would offer him food without asking a second and third time once Maximos initially turned it down.
Maximos immediately looked for ways to get involved at Western. He eventually found his place with WWU DECA. DECA helps students develop competence, innovation, integrity and teamwork. Students can participate in competitions and prepare for life after college by developing business and professional skills.
DECA president Kaleb Ode remembers the first time he met Maximos.
“I could immediately tell he was looking for a way to stand out. Many of the folks that come to our first meetings are looking for that as well, but Mark stood out because of all the questions he asked after the meeting,” Ode said.
Maximos competed in international marketing, placed in the top four at state level and then joined 24 other students from Western to compete at a nation-wide level in Washington D.C. Even though it was his first year in DECA, Maximos and his partner Terry Thammawan placed in the top ten in the first round.
“Seeing him continually push himself to be a better competitor and business student was truly a highlight of my time as president of WWU DECA,” Ode said.
Maximos said being involved with DECA helped him learn how to work under stress, be accurate and clearly explain ideas.
“It was clear he was intent on making his time at Western count and I’m very proud that he recognized DECA as a way to do that,” Ode said.
While at Western, Maximos has been enrolling in classes outside of his major, embracing the freedom he has with his education. The classes he has been taking range from philosophy to modern dance.
“Dancing in Egypt is not very acceptable, especially for the guys,” Maximos said. “I’m taking things I’m not used to because I want to push myself out of this comfort zone and test how I am going to be flexible.”
At the end of spring quarter, Maximos’s time will be up in Bellingham and he’ll return to Cairo. He’ll still be involved with NESA by working to start a nonprofit organization that helps distribute pharmaceuticals to those in need in Egypt.
Maximos said his experience abroad helped him learn how to be more accepting of people with different beliefs as well as how to better interact with others.
In the future, Maximos wants to continue to travel. He wants to head to Europe next. He said he encourages everyone to consider traveling abroad.
“It’s way better than staying in one country, one culture. You go out, you see new things, you change your mind,” Maximos said. “Even your perspective in life changes and you start to look at life in a different point of view.”
To learn more about what international programs are available to Western students, visit the International Programs & Exchanges office in Miller Hall 208 or learn more online at studyabroad.wwu.edu.