Category: Capstone International Services

A Crash Course in Global Innovation

Written by: Breanna Pianfetti

Fifteen days completely out of their comfort zone with strangers from around the world, students from The University of Alabama consistently overcome a diverse set of challenges at the European Innovation Academy, or EIA.

The European Innovation Academy challenges young professionals to think outside the box, testing their entrepreneurial mindsets. During their stay abroad, students have the ability to network with peers, international faculty and industry-leading professionals from all over the globe, including 90 speakers and mentors from Fortune 50 companies like Amazon and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

University of Alabama students from the 2019 European Innovation Academy with faculty advisor Harold Wright sitting.

Students from the University of Alabama who attend the program have the ability to receive study abroad course credit for their studies. Applications to attend EIA next summer open up in late 2019.

This past summer, nearly 500 students from 75 countries met in Cascais, Portugal, for the three-week intensive acceleration program centered around entrepreneurship and innovation. At the 2019 convention, EIA challenged 11 Culverhouse College of Business students, including some on the STEM Path to MBA, to build an entire business from concept to company in under three weeks.

“EIA is a global entity that brings together students for start-up businesses in a global environment,” explained Harold Wright, professor in the STEM and CREATE program and faculty advisor for the EIA trip. “It is a great exercise that teaches students to be comfortable with ambiguity.”

This is The University of Alabama’s third trip to EIA –– and each time, students from the Capstone pile on the previous year’s successes. This year’s EIA team traveled to Cascais, Portugal and stayed from July 14 to August 2, 2019.

Every EIA participant begins their trip speed-dating style, meeting with potential team members from all over who have great ideas for the next big startup, like Uber, DoorDash, or Airbnb. Each team includes a chief executive officer, chief business officer, chief marketing officer, chief technical officer and chief development officer. Diversity and international representation are important factors in how teams are composed. For example, Jack Zimmerman a chemical engineering student on the STEM Path to MBA, which is offered through Culverhouse’s Manderson Graduate School of Business, led a team at EIA in 2018 with members from Italy, Russia, Canada and Texas.

The first step from concept to company is creating a solid team with a solid idea. Pivoting, as it’s referred to, is a fundamental change to a business, and, in this case, students often found themselves pivoting on their ideas constantly, fine-tuning them to create a better, more marketable idea.

“Both your team and your idea need to be approved simultaneously within the first 48 hours,” Macey Shirah, a participant from this year’s cohort, explained. “… and even when you think you’ve found your team, where everyone’s committed and you have all five people on board, you go to get approved, there’s a possibility that your idea can be denied. Which also happened to me even after dating almost 12 teams.”

Shirah and her team had several ideas, ranging from pots and pans to wine to, finally, utilizing a NASA patent for maritime transportation.

Students began their trip speed-dating style, meeting with other participants from around the world.

“It took until the last 20 minutes before the final deadline for my company to finally be approved,” Shirah said.Shirah and her team had several ideas, ranging from pots and pans to wine to, finally, utilizing a NASA patent for maritime transportation.

Once an idea is established and a team is found. Students are faced with the next challenge: validation. Any product or service must have a coinciding market with interested consumers. This led to a few days where teams conducted research on validating the market, testing consumer and product market fit, and making sure their ideas meet consumer needs. To accomplish this, many students conducted deep market research, reached out to top executives at Fortune 50 companies, and met with subject matter experts relevant to their product.

“When my team settled on the maritime transportation idea, I reached out to the director of communications for the European International Shipowners Association of Portugal,” explained Macey. “Through email, we set up a lunch meeting at Apeadeiro in Cascais, Portugal with their technical director and director of communications…. My team and I had just arrived at EIA, but there a couple of us were a few days later, eating lunch with these two directors about our new business idea.”

For Macey and her team, that lunch meeting helped establish their market entry. She received a letter of intent from the shipowners association, allowing her to begin contacting the shipowners.

Idea established. Team found. Market validated. Next was the prototyping process. A prototype is a preliminary model of an idea that leads to future developed forms and, eventually, the final product. Considering most of the ideas at the European Innovation Academy were digital, many teams set up web-based applications.

“Team’s set up fully functioning websites with landing pages that were made available for potential customers,” Madeline Rogers, a two-time past participant and chemical engineering student, explained. “Every team’s product essentially became available online where customers had the chance to get a comprehensive understanding of the product, input their contact information for more information, give feedback and sign up for when the beta testing process begins.”

Idea established. Team found. Market validated. Prototype available. Students are now at a point in the trip where the program becomes more of a competition. During the final week, participants find themselves facing a room full of venture capitalists, fellow students and executive-level professionals. Their next steps include pitching their ideas and asking for funding. Typically, the chief executive officers of these new startups assume the role of lead pitch person, becoming the one who stands in front of the entire room, asking investors to open their checkbooks and invest in their team’s new business idea.

That trend, though, is not always true when there is an Alabama student on the team.

Advisor Harold Wright explains: “Chloe Denorme was not supposed to be the pitch person for her team, but a day before the presentations, she approached me and effectively said ‘I am going to pitch. I am the only one equipped with the knowledge of what we are doing.’”

Denorme had just celebrated her 19th birthday during her time at the program. The other four people on her team were, on average, late twenties to early thirties, all with several years of work experience.

“Following the pitch,” Wright continued. “I went up to the venture capitalist and thanked him for listening to Chloe who had just turned 19 and finished her freshman year. He looked at me and said ‘that was easily the best pitch I have ever heard.’”

Apart from the program rules, there is also a “Wright Rule,” which allows for only one Alabama student per team.

Per the “Wright Rule,” Paige Harris, a chemical engineering major, was the only Alabama student and female on her team. The rest of her team included participants from Switzerland, Denmark, Singapore and Michigan who all voted Harris in as their chief executive officer and lead pitch person for their startup tech company, Bippy, that helps find parking in Europe. In three minutes or less, Harris pitched her entire company from idea to business plan to market strategy to two investors: one who invested a lot of money in Disney and one who is the vice president of Alchemist Accelerator in San Francisco, California.

Harris’s company was selected as a top 10 team and was awarded the HAG Venture Building Program and Expedited Interview with Alchemist Accelerator awards. The Alchemist Accelerator award, which is known as one of the “most prestigious awards” at the program, grants Harris a direct line to an interview with Alchemist Accelerator anytime she submits an application on a potential investment idea.

“The entire three-week experience was incredible,” Harris noted about her time abroad. “When am I ever going to be in another room with 11 venture capitalists that can write me a check for a quarter of a million dollars?”

Students had the opportunity to travel on the weekends.

Harris and her team’s company, that they created in July, recently received stage one funding and are currently up and running.

Zimmerman, who attended EIA in 2018, is still acting chief executive officer for his company, Rottweiler, a security company that protects personal items. Zimmerman and his team received the provisional patent award from Nixon Peabody, covering any and all fees when it comes to filing for a patent.

“The chief technology officer and I are currently in product development,” Zimmerman said. “He is from Italy, but is soon moving to America.”

Shirah, who went through several ideas and found herself on several teams before settling, finished the European Innovation Academy a part of the program’s top team. The company, AME, LLC, creates a biocide-free product for the maritime industry.

“There are new regulations imposed by the International Maritime Organization that have banned most common biocide products that are used in killing off biolife on the ship hulls,” Shirah explained. “Our superhydrophobic, biocide-free product coats ships hulls and repels water at the surface to prevent bioaccumulation as opposed to the current method of relying on harmful chemicals to kill off the biolife after they accumulated.”

Shirah and her team’s idea won them a fully-expensed trip to Greece for the Funny Money Training Course, where they will learn about entrepreneurship, funding and succeeding as a startup.

Whereas, senior chemical engineer, Madeline Rogers, is a featured alum of the EIA Program, leading webinars as a successful student story from the program. She discusses her experiences and what the program offers to faculty and students, answering their questions in hopes that they will register and go.

“The European Innovation Academy is an invaluable experience to any and all participants,” Rogers said. “It’s something you can’t get anywhere else.”

For more information about the European Innovation Academy click here.

International Spouses Learn UA Culture, History

October 21, 2019 | From The Crimson White

While international students and staff members have their own resources for adjusting to UA life, their spouses have found their own community in B.B. Comer Hall. 

ISG Photo by Joe Will Field
ISG Photo by Joe Will Field

The International Spouse Group (ISG) has been serving the partners of foreign students and staff members over recent years. The ISG meets once a week, and faculty advisers are there to answer any questions the members have or just to talk about how their day is going. It is a casual and inviting environment, which is the goal of advisers Melanie Walker and Kay Geno.

Walker, an international staff member herself, noticed the positive attention incoming students and staff members got at the University.

“When I came to UA, I found it welcoming,” Walker said. “The school does a good job with the students and keeps them busy, but I think the spouse gets lost along the way.”

That is why the ISG was formed, Walker said.

“We want to bring people together,” Walker said. “When you come here with your partner, you don’t know anyone. It’s just a way of getting people to meet each other and realize they’re not alone.”

On a typical Wednesday morning, the group gathers at B.B. Comer Hall in a meeting room tucked away in the Capstone International Center. While this intimate setting facilitates conversation, the leaders also like to take things outdoors and give the members a chance to see other parts of the UA campus.

“We’ve done the [Hallowed Grounds] walking tour with Dr. [Hilary] Green, the Gorgas House tour, the Bryant Football museum tour, the Smith Hall History museum, seen the library archives,” Walker said. “We do things quite often.”

While Walker and Geno set up these events and promote the club on Facebook, they say it is all about the members.

“We invite new members all the time and reach back out to people who have already come,” Geno said.

Attendance varies between four to 10 members at a given meeting, but the group is always looking for new people that they can serve.

“Some international students have their own clubs and Facebook pages, like the Bangladeshi students, so we can reach out to new members that way, too,” Walker said. “There are always new students coming into the University, as undergrads or Ph.D. students, so we try to get a hold of them and their partners.”

The ISG currently has members from Nepal, Russia, Sweden, Bangladesh, India, Germany and more. No matter where the spouses are from, the mission of the ISG unites them.

“When people first arrive in the U.S., they find it important to do more than just finding their feet,” Walker said. “They feel lonely and think about what they have left behind. The wives have jobs and careers that their visa does not allow them to practice here. The initial adjustment to the culture can be hard.”

Not only do the members gain support and knowledge from the ISG, but Walker and Geno benefit as well.

“There’s a learning curve for everybody,” Walker said. “No matter where you’re from, you can always teach us something new.”

Antara Das has been a part of the ISG since the spring semester of last year. She moved to Alabama in the summer of 2018, along with her husband, Tonmoy Ghosh, and two-year-old daughter. Ghosh is at The University of Alabama pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

“My husband actually gave me a pamphlet about the ISG,” Das said. “He told me about the meetings, and one day I went to one and got added to Facebook group.”

“I came to UA mainly for the scholarship,” Ghosh said. “But I went to the International Coffee Hour event, and that’s where I heard about the ISG. It is a great place to make friends and learn from the different cultures of the people there.”

Since then, Das and her daughter have been frequent attendees to the meetings and events of the ISG. The group helped Das and her family work past the initial growing pains of living in a new country.

“At first, things like transportation were hard,” Das said. “I didn’t know how to drive in the U.S. It was not easy to understand the language and the English accent.”

Das was able to pick up those skills and has since expanded on her involvement with Alabama culture. For this, she thanks the ISG.

“They’ve helped me know America and Tuscaloosa better,” Das said. “We’ve gone on trips to museums, and I have come to know a lot about the culture and history here.”

Das is planning to take the GRE exam and begin studying public health at the University if admitted.

“The people here are very friendly and helpful,” Das said. “My family feels very good here, even though we are far from our country.”

Rona Khadka, another ISG member, has resided in Alabama for approximately two years. Originally from Nepal, Khadka came here alongside her husband, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in data science.

Like Das, Khadka’s husband was the one who told her about the group.

“My favorite part has been getting to know people from the U.S. and making friends with people from other countries,” Khadka said.

Khadka appreciates the practice she has gotten with speaking English in the ISG and says that it has given her confidence to speak it more herself.

“I was worried about that for my medical exams,” Khadka said.

While the members of the ISG are guided through their time at The University of Alabama, they also highlight external opportunities as well, such as job placement. For example, Khadka, 27, obtained her undergraduate degree in nursing while in Nepal. She now has a job lined up in Nebraska and is hoping for a sponsor to secure her green card.

The ISG meets every Wednesday at 10 a.m. in B.B. Comer 105. For more information, visit their Facebook page.

Make a Friend, Be a Friend: International Spouse Group

April 3, 2019 | From UA News

International Spouse Group

When Melanie Walker’s husband got a job as an associate professor of educational psychology at The University of Alabama in August last year, they packed up and moved from their home in Durham, England, to Tuscaloosa.

But while he worked, she was left alone and unable to pursue her own career because for now the type of visa she was given doesn’t allow international spouses to work.

“As a spouse you’re basically an alien,” Walker said. “Everything you do has to go through the working spouse or the student. That’s possibly the hardest thing that people coming here have to deal with because when you are in your home country your identity and finances are your own, but when you come here as the spouse of a student, your identity and finances are connected to your spouse.”

With this not being her first international move due to her husband’s career, she quickly found ways to occupy her time and get involved. One of those ways she discovered was UA’s International Spouse Group, where she is now a co-leader.

“My husband and I saw the group on the website and I saw where they met and when, and I turned up one day to say hello and I was welcomed in,” she said.

The International Spouse Group brings together the spouses of international students, faculty, staff and scholars for activities and interaction by learning from each other and sharing unique knowledge and experiences, according to its website.

The home countries of current group members include Nepal, Brazil, Uganda, Bangladesh, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Germany and America. The group is open to American spouses who want to make international friends and support those friends in the process of acculturation.

The current American in the group, co-leader Kay Geno, is from south Louisiana and has been a member for a year and a half. She said she joined because she was new to Tuscaloosa and sought fellowship. She also wanted to help non-Americans acclimate.

“What I hope happens is that the camaraderie that they feel makes them understand that they aren’t the only ones who feel like they’re going through this struggle,” she said.

“We try to plug them into other places to volunteer and meet other people. Sometimes people come to our group for a long time and then others come here during their first year, get their footing and then go to other groups.”

Geno said group members generally have a lot of cultural questions, but also questions about how to properly conduct themselves in America.

“They ask things like, ‘how do I address someone in an email?’ ‘How many times should I call someone?’ They want help navigating through health care, purchasing a house, which of the 50 brands of toothpaste to buy, what cleaning supplies.

“So it’s just reassuring them that they were doing the right thing and helping them with next steps.”

The group also visits local and state hot spots.

Geno said the largest contingent in the group are spouses of graduate students.

The group meets each Wednesday during the school year from 10 to 11:30 a.m. in the International Student and Scholar Services offices in 105 BB Comer Hall.

To become a member of the International Spouse Group, simply attend a meeting. For more information, email, or join their Facebook page.

Capstone International Center Staff Inducted Into NAFSA Academy

NAFSA Academy 2019-20
NAFSA Academy 2019-20

Education Abroad Advisors Raven McKenzie and Sarah Kidwell and International Student & Scholar Advisor Chris Larkin were inducted into the NAFSA Academy for 2019-20.

The current Academy class of 61 trainees and 11 coaches met in Atlanta, Georgia on the Georgia Tech campus, where they spent an energizing and intense four days broadening their knowledge of the international education field, participating in 5 knowledge community based workshops, convening evening roundtable discussions, and connecting with a community of International Education peers.

The Academy for International Education is a selective program, in which trainees are provided foundational training around nine international education professional proficiencies and the primary knowledge areas of international education. The foundational training is enhanced by a personalized learning plan the Academy trainee develops, which guides and measures the trainee’s learning throughout the Academy year, in addition to individualized coaching from a international education coach.


International Student Receives Premier Award

Sakina Dhondia Receives William P. and Estan J. Bloom Award

The William P. and Estan J. Bloom Award honors a student who has improved relations among different groups. Past recipients have been chosen primarily for improving understanding and supporting interaction among groups for a common cause.

Sakina Dhondia finds that bringing people together for festivals – or even just coffee – can help UA students connect in ways they could not otherwise.

Thanks to her work with the International Students Association and as director of cultural experiences and diversity for the Honors College Assembly, she helped arrange activities, including the International Coffee Hour, the Diwali festival and the Crimson Culture Gala, that inspired interaction among the diverse student body of UA.

Dhondia, a finance and economics major, moved with her family from Delft in the Netherlands and now lives in Tuscaloosa. She has served as treasurer, vice president and president of the International Students Association, as well as a design partner for the Design for American project and budget director for Night to Shine, an Honors College initiative that creates a prom-like experience for students with special needs. She also works with the Alabama Transportation Institute.

Her parents are Juzer and Rashida Dhondia.

From – 2019 Premier Awards.

International Student Cultural Retreat

On Oct. 20, international students and ISSS staff went to a Fall Cultural Retreat which was held at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. The 40 students and staff who represented The University of Alabama at the retreat enjoyed visiting the Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama, a pioneer farm, hiking to the old ironworks facilities, seeing artists make their own hand crafts, and visiting “Trade Days” which is where people sell local food, handmade items, and antiques. Although there was a bit of rain throughout the day, it didn’t stop our students from having fun and exploring the state park grounds. International students were able to visit the Old Country store, see the Halloween decorations on display, and play games together near the campsite. Approximately 150 international students attended from various universities around Alabama including University of West Alabama, Samford University, Gadsden State Community College, and Jefferson State Community College. A Lebanese style lunch was provided by Regions bank, and The University of Alabama provided the snacks for the retreat. This truly was a cultural experience as students were able to learn about local Alabama culture, as well as make new friends from other countries!

International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) is a part of the Capstone International Center and is an integral part of an international student’s experience at The University of Alabama. ISSS helps F-1 and J-1 students maintain their visa status while studying at UA. The mission of International Student and Scholar Services is to provide essential services and innovative programs for The University of Alabama international students, scholars and their families to enable them to achieve their educational, professional and social goals. ISSS seeks to foster diversity and strengthen inter-cultural relationships throughout the UA campus and community. It is our commitment to promote understanding and respect for the world’s many cultures. We do that through offering weekly activities such as International Spouse Group which meets from 10-11:30am every Wednesday, and International Coffee Hour which happens from 11:30am-1:00pm every Friday during the fall and spring semesters. ISSS also sponsors special events such as the Fall Cultural Retreat for our international students. If you want to keep up to date with all the activities ISSS is hosting, follow us on Facebook @UAInternationalServices.

United Way Day of Action 2018

Continuing the annual tradition of serving the Tuscaloosa community, 34 Capstone International Center volunteers including faculty, staff, and students participated in The United Way of West Alabama’s Day of Action. The United Way organized 40 local service projects to assist nonprofit organizations and schools in the Tuscaloosa community. More than 500 volunteers came together for this year’s Day of Action to improve the community where The University of Alabama calls home.

The Capstone International Center volunteer teams spent their day at the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter, The Arc of Tuscaloosa, Temporary Emergency Services, and Stillman College. The team completed much needed yard work projects, painted dorm rooms, organized donations, folded laundry, engaged with the community, and learned about local organizations working to make a difference. One of these United Way agencies, Temporary Emergency Services, has been in the Tuscaloosa community since 1945 helping individuals and families in crisis situations by providing financial and other temporary assistance.

The United Way of West Alabama strengthens education, income stability, and health in our community by developing resources and partnerships. The Capstone International Center is honored to participate every year in the service opportunities that the United Way organizes in the community. Sharing our love of service with UA’s International students only strengthens our relationships!

AAIE Conference Held at UA

In mid April, the University of Alabama hosted the 2018 Alabama Association of International Educators (AAIE) annual conference. This organization is the Alabama chapter of Association of International Educators (NAFSA), and holds at its core a mission to promote international educational and cultural exchange through the support of students and scholars who choose to study in the state of Alabama and of Alabamians who seek education abroad.

Approximately 120 professional staff from international education offices across Alabama attended. Presentation topics covered a range of topics including using technology in the office and creating culturally inclusive programs for students from different countries. The University of Alabama’s staff presented on eight different topics . Participants also enjoyed a keynote speech by Mr. Mark Jackson, Honorary Consul General of Japan, who stressed the importance of diverse cultural knowledge and travel.

More information about AAIE, its mission, and events can be found at



A Sweet Taste of Culture for International Students

International students experience American Christmas traditions – decorating cookies, making gingerbread houses, and singing carols – for the first time.

See the photos and the finished products at the UA News Center.

Students with UA’s English Language Institute gathered at B.B. Comer Hall to decorate Christmas cookies, make gingerbread houses, and sing Christmas carols for the first time.


Abdulmosen Shunib, a 21-year-old ELI student from Saudi Arabia, said the experience was neat. “This is my first time doing this. I like it.”


Sojin Thoi, a 23-year-old ELI student from South Korea, said she came to UA to study abroad. “I’ve never tried to make cookies and decorate them. It is so interesting. We celebrate Christmas in Korea, but we just share gifts.”


Bugra Bugdayci, a 24-year-old ELI student from Turkey, said being at UA has been an experience. “Making cookies is different. It is tradition. Cultural.” 


Cookies decorated with the Turkish flag. “I want to know who dares to eat cookie with the Turkish flag!?” said Muath Mumani, laughing and raising his finger in the air.


The finished product: international Christmas cookies.


Mio Ueoka, a 21-year-old ELI student from Japan, said this is her first time making Christmas cookies and her first Christmas. “I like it. Here at the University of Alabama it is interesting because I meet other students from all over the world.”


Completed gingerbread house.


Muath Mumani, a 39-year-old ELI student from Jordan, said he enrolled in UA’s ELI program to improve his English so he can better serve his clients at his law practice. 


Dogga Demir, a 28-year-old ELI student from Turkey, said the main holiday celebration in Turkey is New Year’s so Christmas is new to him. “It is a lot of eating, resting, singing, feasting. What is not to like?”


Pride in the creation of first-time gingerbread homes.


And, of course, Santa made an appearance.

University Place Elementary Students Learn about World Cultures

Tuscaloosa News

By Drew Taylor / Staff Writer

Wearing traditional Chinese garb and a panda hat, Jing Li stood Friday in the middle of a circle of intrigued students from University Place Elementary School.

As the students watched, Li began to spin, kick and softly move across the floor, performing different martial art forms, such as tai chi and changquan.

In the midst of her performance, Li stopped.

“You want to see more?” Li asked.

“Yeah,” the group shouted with excitement.

Li’s performance was one part of a showcase at the school Friday morning that included representatives from 16 different countries to commemorate International Education Week. The showcase, which was organized between the school and the English Language Institute at the University of Alabama, was called “World Friends Day” and included people explaining their cultures and what makes their country unique.

“We want all of our students to have some kind of experience with all cultures,” said Patsy McGahey, science, technology, engineering and mathematics director at University Place. “We want them to be global citizens.”

The forum was organized after Monica Hollie, a receptionist at ELI and a parent of two students at University Place, approached the school about holding an international forum there. ELI works with University of Alabama students who come from across the globe in improving their English skills. The group normally holds forums at different schools throughout the year to teach children about different cultures.

Hollie said that as much as the forum is for the children, it also helps out the ELI fellows.

“Their first language is not English, and they are here to improve their skills in that area,” Hollie said.

Zion Doughty, a third-grader at University Place, said he liked learning about different countries, such as Jordan.

“It seems really cool,” Doughty said.

McGahey said that University Place has many students who live at or below the poverty level, and they may not have had a chance to see the world or understand how other people live in the world.

“By exposing them to other countries, it broadens their experience to what they can do later in life,” she said.

Hollie said that more than just exposure to cultures, forums like the one on Friday help children relate to others in the world, in addition to making people from other cultures feel like they are understood in the process.

“Sometimes, it can be their first time to come to the U.S.,” Hollie said. “It makes it easier for them to know that a few Americans are eager to learn, not quick to criticize.”