Sibel Ahi with students

Sibel Ahi, Ph.D. ’15 came to America 25 years ago from her native Turkey as a 17-year-old au pair for a Florida family. Looking back today, she likened herself to a little bird that didn’t know how to fly and looked around for help to survive.

“It was a bad experience,” Alvernia University’s director of international recruitment said, not dwelling on the past. Lacking support, she returned to her hometown of Ankara and pursued her bachelor’s in tourism management.

In 2005, Ahi returned to the United States for a hospitality internship but said she realized her true interest was building long-term relationships with international students. While completing her MBA at Dowling College, Oakdale, N.Y., she began recruiting international students for an NYC ESL school and community college. After earning her educational leadership doctorate from Alvernia, she made a career in international student recruitment, first at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and, since 2019, at Alvernia. From the start, Ahi made it her mission to ensure no one on her watch ever felt lost and alone in a foreign country, as she once did.

“I see myself every time students arrive,” she said. “I was the one who moved from family 6,000 miles away with 26 kilo of luggage and built my future in another country. I share their feelings.”

At Alvernia, Ahi created a resource-rich program whose staff has grown from just her to four people. The result is a boom in international students. During the 2023-24 academic year, Alvernia welcomed more than 100 international students compared to just a handful five years ago. The current crop hails from 19 different countries, including Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil and Ghana.

“We build the best experience academically, socially,” she said. “You see those little birds get strength and learn to live in a different country without family.”

Ahi believes she’s not only helping out international students with her push for a strong multi-country presence on campus. Domestic-born students, faculty and staff, along with the community, also see a benefit.

“I’m bringing diversity to campus,” Ahi said. “Diversity enriches the educational experience of our domestic students and people in Berks County.”

“I see myself every time students arrive. I was the one who moved from family 6,000 miles away with 26 kilo of luggage and built my future in another country. I share their feelings.” — Sibel Ahi, Ph.D. ’15

Mary-Alice Ozechoski, M.A., Alvernia’s senior vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, credits Ahi for Alvernia’s recruitment successes.

“She’s been a phenomenal resource,” she said. “She has a lot more compassion and empathy than almost anyone I’ve worked with in this space.”

Even the pandemic didn’t slow Ahi. While many colleges saw a drop in international students, the bulk of whom come from China, Alvernia expanded its population thanks to a relationship with the Saudi Arabian government and, no doubt, Ahi’s exuberance. Her love for Alvernia shows in her sales pitch, Ozechoski said, even when she’s working a virtual event focused on Vietnam or China from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

“There is no institution that you can find our size,” said Ahi, shifting into recruitment mode, “that will have seven people dedicated to one international student.”

Each has access to John Carl Hepler, director of the Office for Multilingual Success; Kevin Davy, director of international student engagement; a junior or senior peer mentor; a navigator who provides motivational support for academic success; an academic adviser; an internship adviser at the Career Development Center; and, of course, Ahi herself.

In the next decade, the goal  — displayed on a whiteboard in Ahi’s office — is to grow international students to 300, or 10 percent of Alvernia’s overall student population.

“Because Sibel has lived the international student experience she brings a level of empathy and compassion to her work,” Ozechoski said. “Our students and our community benefit from her lived experience.