Onetime Foreign Student Leads Lehigh U.'s Globalization Project

John Kish IV

Mohamed S. El-Aasser
June 13, 2010

In 1966, Mohamed S. El-Aasser, then 23, left his home in Egypt to pursue a doctoral degree in Montreal. Today he recalls the shock of his first snowstorm. He knows that going abroad on your own can be daunting.

Now the director of Lehigh University's new Office of International Affairs, Mr. El-Aasser says his experience as a foreign student helped prepare him for the job. Of that first experience in Canada, he says, "I was still at the age where I could let go and cry. I can imagine that some of the students who are 17 or 18 years old might have the same feeling."

Mr. El-Aasser, a chemical-engineering professor and a former dean and provost at Lehigh, became the university's vice president for international affairs last summer, when the office opened.

"The international plan is not about new courses, as important as they may be," he says. "It's not about more students. It's about, How do we get them integrated into campus life? How do we get them to teach each other, so that the international students will learn about the American culture and vice versa?"

Lehigh began developing a plan to "globalize" its faculty members and students three and a half years ago.

The university, in Bethlehem, Pa., is midsize, with about 4,800 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students. Mr. El-Aasser found its size no obstacle to attracting more international students or to sending more students and professors across the globe.

In talks with Lehigh's former foreign students, he says, he learned that many felt they lacked an outlet for sharing the experiences of their home countries. He has been trying to create events where that can happen.

He has also motivated faculty members to come up with ways to do international research, soliciting ideas that the university could finance. And he has used his personal and institutional connections around the globe to create several new programs.

One such program is the South Africa Education Development Initiative, in which two South African elementary schools participate in a video-journal project. It is then studied by Lehigh instructors who incorporate what they've learned into their classes.

His office is also sending five engineering students to study in Singapore this summer.

Other changes are meant to ease the transition for students from abroad. For example, while they were previously expected to find their own way from the airport to Lehigh, the institution now offers a shuttle to the campus.

Holder of 9 U.S. Patents

Mr. El-Aasser arrived at Lehigh in 1972 as a postdoctoral fellow and was appointed an assistant professor of chemical engineering in 1974, with his research focusing on polymer colloids and emulsion-polymerization processes.

He has advised more than 150 master's and doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, and has been an author of about 400 published scientific articles and five books. He holds nine U.S. patents.

"He's a terrific scholar. He's been extremely productive," says Alice P. Gast, Lehigh's president and herself a chemical engineer. "He's very dedicated to graduate research and recruiting excellent graduate researchers from all over the world."

As someone who has lived outside his native land for most of his academic career, Mr. El-Aasser knows the impact of cultural differences.

"We as an institution of higher education are agents of change," he says. "So I believe that whatever we do, either inside of the classroom or outside of the classroom, we need to make sure that everything is done in a global context."

His colleagues say he is also adept at cutting through red tape. Mr. El-Aasser says his experience as a professor and an administrator taught him to respect the policies of the institution but "make sure things get done."