Couple pulls from experiences to advance ties in Colombia with Fulbright awards

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For both Zuleima Karpyn and Luis Ayala, leaving their home country of Venezuela for a Penn State education seemed like a daunting task.

After all, they never could have imagined that it would lead to advancing their education, developing their careers as faculty members or meeting each other, resulting in a marriage that’s produced three children.

Luis Ayala and Zuleima Karpyn

Greis Cifuentes, community project coordinator for Fulbright Colombia, left, and Sergio Sánchez, teaching and research program coordinator for Fulbright Colombia, take a photo with Zuleima Karpyn and Luis Ayala and their three children Gabriel, Marina and David Ayala-Karpyn.

Image: Luis Ayala and Zuleima Karpyn

About two decades ago, it was all a dream.

Karpyn and Ayala, who met at Penn State during graduate school, both cited the University’s family environment as a factor in their decisions to enroll. The couple said the University offers the safety net international students often need.

Luiz Ayala and family

Luis Ayala spends time with his children Marina, Gabriel and David Ayala-Karpyn. Luis Ayala and his wife Zuleima Karpyn, both professors at Penn State and natives of Venezuela, spent a year teaching in Colombia and immersing their children in the culture where they are from. 

Image: Luis Ayala and Zuleima Karpyn

“When I visited Penn State and saw how quickly the faculty embraced me, I knew this was the right fit,” said Ayala, now the William A. Fustos Family Professorship in Energy and Mineral Engineering. “It was the combination of the stellar program and environment where you know you’re going to be challenged yet taken care of. You’re going to be part of a family, and that sense of belonging for me only happened here at Penn State.”

Building connections through Fulbright awards

Through sabbaticals and Fulbright awards, the couple spent the past year in Colombia strengthening research ties while serving as inspiration for students interested in advancing their education abroad.

“A number of students wanted to know how we did it,” said Karpyn, the Quentin and Louise Wood Endowed Faculty Fellow in petroleum and natural gas engineering. “Just by having people like us, international faculty, become part of their community makes those dreams seem closer and attainable. We can lead them to a path of how it can be done, and that can be really eye-opening because suddenly a goal that seems so distant appears closer to reality.”

While researching countries to advance connections and improve research opportunities, the couple looked at several Spanish-speaking nations before choosing Colombia. It had a lot going for it, they said. First, Colombia is undergoing a momentous change in its energy outlook, which stands in contrast with past decades when the country was a net oil importer and not energy self-sufficient. Colombia’s economy is expanding at the fastest pace among Latin America’s major economies. It was also very welcoming and close to their families in Venezuela, offering a chance for their children to experience a part of their culture.

Luis Ayala and graduate students

Luis Ayala, who specializes in natural gas, split time between the National University of Colombia at Medellin and the University of Los Andes in Bogota, teaching graduate students and guiding research projects using his Fulbright award. Here, he's with his graduate students for his final class in Universidad de los Andes (Bogota).

Image: Luis Ayala

Ayala, who specializes in natural gas, split time between the National University of Colombia at Medellin and the University of Los Andes in Bogota, teaching graduate students and guiding research projects.

Zuleima Karpyn and class

Zuleima Karpyn, who specializes in reservoir characterization, taught graduate and undergraduate students at the National University of Colombia — Medellin, as well as EAFIT University, strengthening research collaborations for her Fulbright award.

Image: Zuleima Karpyn

Karpyn, who specializes in reservoir characterization, taught graduate and undergraduate students at the National University of Colombia — Medellin, as well as EAFIT University, strengthening research collaborations.

Bringing it home to Penn State

Karpyn and Ayala said they returned with a continuation plan and a renewed drive to better their research and teaching at Penn State.

Goals include inviting students and faculty to Penn State and establishing a continued pipeline between the universities. They also plan to serve as ambassadors for research, pressing and improving collaborations between the two nations.

“Luis and I are trying to sustain and nourish that network; I’ve been appointed to lead a task force for a global engagement network opportunity with Colombia through Global Programs, with about a dozen other Penn State faculty already doing great work in connection with Colombia,” Karpyn said.

Because Penn State plays a key role in the U.S. natural gas boom, its researchers are well suited to help Colombia, Ayala said. Colombia can grow out of the challenges the U.S. faced while Penn State researchers can take even more innovative approaches to problem-solving through the benefit of hindsight.

“It’s a matter of sharing experiences,” said Ayala, who is returning to Colombia to again teach graduate students. “This allows both sides to become more creative, which results in us being able to tackle bigger challenges. When you bring dexterities together, better things come to fruition.”

Their experiences abroad are reshaping their careers at Penn State, too.

Karpyn said she’s revising courses that she’s taught for years because she’s thinking of new approaches.

“Colombia was a great fit because it offered a place where all of our expectations of a memorable Fulbright experience were met,” Karpyn said. “It was a great opportunity for us as a family and professionally. You come back refreshed. You come back with different ideas, a broader perspective of what you can do, a better appreciation for other institutions, other cultures and people. It’s very enriching.”

Ayala said he’s excited about strengthening ties with students and researchers.

“In academia, it’s important to remain inspired and recognize it’s exactly what brought us here,” he said. “The human connections you make are important for students to see that we are here for them. We want them to succeed.”

Media Contacts: 
Last Updated January 30, 2018