Student takes on challenges, earns degree and sets sights on medical school

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — "I can honestly say it would have been easier for me to climb out of a 100-foot well, though I would not have learned nearly as much."

That is how Mannaa I. Mannaa, a native of Egypt, described his dream to attend Penn State, a journey that began when he stepped off a plane at University Park Airport on a frigid day in January 2005 and continues today as he pursues a goal of earning a medical doctorate.

Along the way, he has had more than his share of challenges, which entailed financial hardship, language and cultural barriers, and, more recently, family health crises. Instead of giving up, the alumnus of the College of Agricultural Sciences and member of the Penn State boxing team took many punches but did not go down for the count.

"I have learned that we often cannot control our surroundings, people or events — we can control only our level of effort and adaptation," he said. "With this realization, I fought through many struggles and won."

Until his mid-teens, Mannaa lived in Qalioub, Egypt, an area so remote that the nearest school was almost an hour away. Transportation was not provided, so Mannaa had to make an arduous trek to school every day on foot. Fortunately, he had an important role model in his life — his father — who, through hard work and perseverance, was one of the few in the region to earn an engineering degree. He served as Mannaa's inspiration to soldier on.

"From a young age I knew that to accomplish anything, especially education, would be very difficult in this very hot, economically depressed country," Mannaa said. "In a family of 11, living in a two-bedroom house, my father struggled to become educated. He was the only one of his siblings and one of very few in the region who earned a college degree."

Life improved when the family moved to Cairo. Education was more accessible, and the family lived a more comfortable lifestyle. Mannaa was a junior at Cairo University in Giza City in 2004 when he learned about a unique student exchange program between his university and Penn State. For him, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue his dream of earning a bachelor's degree in animal science from Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Before he could embark on his journey, he had to gain his family's approval and financial support, and then go through the process of obtaining a travel visa. He was successful on both counts, and, of the 24 students hoping to come to America, Mannaa was the only one who made it.

"Elation came over me at the realization that this American dream could actually become a reality for me," he said. "Evolving science and technology absolutely requires this education. I was determined to go to this advanced school and earn a college degree that would secure me a well-paying job and a better life."

That elation was short-lived, however, as he struggled through his first year at Penn State. "I was lost in a very cold city, not understanding nor being understood, struggling to make my way both socially and academically," he recalled. "What made the difference was, aside from being hungry for food on a daily basis, I was hungry for knowledge."

Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs for the college, remembered Mannaa's early difficulties but was confident he would succeed. To help, she connected him with resources and student groups designed to help international students integrate, and she invited him to spend time with her family at their home.

"Adapting to college life is hard for any student, let alone a student who's traveled from another country," she said. "Mannaa's faced challenges, but he's also experienced triumphs — he's brave, driven, principled and passionate about his studies and life."  

Mannaa acknowledged that the language barrier was probably the most difficult challenge and had an impact on his academic performance. It would have been easy for him to quit and return home, but he decided to continue.

"Frustration became a driving force that would not only push me to better my English but also obtain my degree in a timely manner," he said. "I spent that first academic year learning to read and write in English proficiently. I also pushed against feelings of being disregarded to communicate with my class and build relationships."

His persistence paid off. Within two years, he made friends, joined the boxing team — winning a silver medal in a regional championship — and completed his bachelor's degree. He landed a "dream job" as a staff biologist for Merck, a pharmaceutical research company, where he worked for four years before joining Johnson & Johnson.

Along the way, he met and married his wife, Angela Hall, and the two were blessed with a daughter, Amina, born in Philadelphia in 2008. But with their daughter's birth came perhaps the biggest challenge yet — Amina was diagnosed with Berdon syndrome, an extremely rare and life-threatening condition that required numerous surgeries, round-the-clock care provided by Mannaa and his wife, and, eventually, a multi-organ transplant in 2010.

Amina is now an exuberant 9-year-old medical miracle with a transplanted pancreas, liver and small intestine. Her success was celebrated by the community when her story, "It's a Wonderful Life," appeared in the Centre Daily Times on Dec. 26, 2015.

His daughter's struggle, coupled with his father's battle with prostate cancer that metastasized to his bones, inspired Mannaa to take his career in a different direction and become a doctor. To prepare, he returned to Penn State to pursue another bachelor's degree, dual-majoring in toxicology and general science with a minor in neuroscience. He plans to graduate in May 2018.

Jack Vanden Heuvel, professor of molecular toxicology in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, appreciates Mannaa's dedication to his studies.

"Mannaa was a joy to have as an advisee, student and lab member," Vanden Heuvel said. "Not only did his work experience help him to succeed, but his maturity and dedication to his studies were phenomenal. You add his personal story to his academic life, and he should be proud of everything he has accomplished. I know I am proud to have served a role, albeit small, in helping him through this phase of his career."

Also admiring Mannaa's commitment is Curt Omiecinski, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences and H. Thomas and Dorothy Willits Hallowell Chair.

"Mannaa is an eager, determined and inquisitive student," he said. "I enjoy his enthusiasm for learning and his passion for helping others."

In turn, Mannaa said he is lucky to have so many people in his corner.

"I am forever grateful for my experiences at Penn State and the people who've helped me along the way," he said. "As I move forward, I anticipate challenges, even highly difficult ones. Nonetheless, I welcome them because I know that a good fight brings out the best in me."

Last Updated November 06, 2017