Mariam Isack

Ripple Effect

How An Unexpected Journey Inspires Students to Explore New Worlds


By Ellen Cooke

Mariam Isack

Isack is on top of the world, with a job where she can share her love of travel and cultures with students and encourage them to go abroad to learn more about themselves.

Mariam Isack was hiking Mount Kilimanjaro with friends in December 2002 when she got the call. “I’m literally in the middle of my hike and I get a phone call from my mom: ‘You need to get back here right away.’ I’m confused, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘You just got accepted to SUNY Herkimer and you need to come home and apply for your U.S. visa.’”

This is happening, thought Isack.

And in January 2003, happen it did for the then recent high school graduate as she arrived on Herkimer’s campus — the community college her father’s friend had earmarked for her.

Pursuing her associate’s degree in business administration at Herkimer marked the start of Isack’s journey from Tanzania in East Africa to upstate New York, then to Stony Brook University, where she transferred to and ultimately received bachelor’s (2008) and master’s degrees (2010) in business and public policy, respectively, before working her way from student assistant to assistant program director for Tanzania Study Abroad (2011) to now assistant dean of International Academic Programs (IAP), a role she has held since since 2022.

Isack’s first experiences in the United States were a shock to her system — going from the hot, humid climate and slow-paced culture of Tanzania to a blizzard and relatively faster-moving speed of life in New York. Her first day on the Stony Brook campus two years later, as a transfer student, was also a bit of a  shock — but in the most welcoming way imaginable.

“I was checking in with my advisor who was the head of International Student Services. When she realized I was from Tanzania, she said, ‘Someone’s waiting for you.’ It turns out she’s talking about the dean of International Programs at the time, the late William Arens, PhD.

“I meet him in the IAP office, which was then on the fifth floor of the library. When I walk in, no one’s at the front desk. And not even like 10 seconds later, Dr. Arens comes out of his office. He sees me and automatically started speaking to me in Swahili. And I am shocked because the man is clearly not Tanzanian but speaks fluent Swahili, which I discovered was from his days of living in Tanzania, where he conducted research as a graduate/PhD student. He also initiated study abroad in Tanzania. And I thought, wow, what a welcome!”

Mariam Isack and group in TanzaniaThat was in 2006. Today and during the past decade, Isack has had the satisfying job of offering students the same types of transformational experiences her travels have brought her.

“We see and hear it from every student who takes part in study abroad programs,” said Isack. “They say it changes everything about how they look at life.

“One of the big things I tell them,” she said, “is that you’re adjusting to a different culture and a different environment, right? That’s part of study, right? It takes you out of your comfort zone, which can help you in the future when you have to work with different people.”

Particularly in the post-COVID world, Isack added, she often has to “sell” study abroad programs, showing students, for example, how it is affordable with the help of financial aid and scholarships.

“The resources I was offered by Mariam before I even stepped onto an airplane in order to bridge the financial challenges I faced showed truly how much she cares about the students she works with, and her belief that studying abroad is a life-changing experience everyone deserves to have,” said Patrick Waryold ’25, who participated in Tanzania’s first winter program in 2024.

In fact, Isack’s favorite part of her job — largely focused on program financing — is helping recruit students. “I like to get out there with the students. I want them to love Stony Brook as much as I do. I’m a true, proud alum,” she said. She also loves working with her team in the Office of Global Affairs, whom she considers family, to “find solutions, provide more opportunities for underrepresented students and expand programs.” And she herself has had the opportunity to participate in 15 trips to Tanzania and eight to Florence, Italy (fun fact: she speaks fluent Italian, which often surprises people).

“Mariam’s investment in her work is contagious. She’s dedicated, compassionate and truly puts students first. She leads with passion and commitment. International Academic Programs, the Office of Global Affairs and Stony Brook are all better because of the work and impact of Mariam Isack.”
— Lindsi Walker, senior associate provost, Office of Global Affairs

In the case of Tanzania, Isack has helped grow the program by leaps and bounds from her first days of working alongside Arens. It’s a little-known fact that Mariam Isack was right by his side taking on the programmatic aspects more and more almost from the start,” said Thomas Bilfinger, MD, director of the Tanzania Global Health program. “Part of the longevity of the program, which turns 30 in 2024, is due to the tireless effort of Mariam to adapt to changing times, expand program offerings and collaborations, yet keep the original enthusiasm and love of Dr. Arens alive.”

For her part, Isack said she gets the added pleasure of exposing students to the culture that shaped her and the homeland that’s still home to her family, which includes her mother and father, younger sister and two brothers (Isack is the firstborn and first to go to college).

“We call life in Tanzania ‘polepole,’ translating to ‘slowly.’ At first it’s hard for many to adjust to the more laid-back style. The fact that buses, classes, etc., are not always on time. Just like I had to adjust to the pace here. Now, I can’t stand to be late,” she said.

“We had a wonderful time in Tanzania (Winter 2024). Everyone was welcoming and helpful. Mariam’s organizational skills, local knowledge, planning, scheduling and coordination of services made all this possible. She does all of this with ease, kindness and efficiency. She is a true ambassador for global studies with excellent logistical skills.”
— Alexander Dagum, MD, professor of surgery and orthopedic surgery, executive vice chair of surgery, Stony Brook Medicine

On a more profound level, Isack said, Tanzania and other experiences in countries that are lesser-developed than the United States “teach our students about being humble. The first thing students tell me when they come back from Tanzania is that it’s very eye-opening to see kids and anybody out in the community always smiling, truly happy … even though they don’t have too much. Then you have many people here who have all the things they don’t and they’re not happy. Students say it opens up their soul” — which, she said, is what it’s all about.

Top Photo: Mariam Isack during a recent trip to Tanzania, in front of Ngorongoro Crater.

Ellen Cooke is the associate director of internal communications

The Impact of Study Abroad


Lorenzo Fedi

“Studying abroad in Lyon, France for six months back in 2016 were indubitably some of the best months of my life. One of the things that stuck with me after my experience was how many invaluable lessons I learned outside of the classroom there (not to say of course that I didn’t learn quite a bit in one as well).”

Lorenzo Fedi, University of Lyon – 2016

“Studying abroad in Tanzania as an undergraduate student at SBU was truly transformative. This life-changing experience not only had a profound positive impact on my life but also played a pivotal role in shaping who I’ve become well beyond my college experience. It significantly broadened my perspective, exposing me to a rich tapestry of cultures, traditions and perspectives  that went beyond the confines of my own community. On a personal level this experience helped me develop my identity and sense of self as a Black woman living in America. Even today, its influence continues to shape me, fostering a more inclusive and global worldview that guides my decisions and interactions.”

Tacha Fletcher, Summer in Tanzania – SBU Alum (Undergraduate and Graduate)

Founder of “Wellness Tree counseling”

I really knew nothing at all about Hong Kong until I decided to go there. I chose the program because I wanted to go to Asia and it was the most affordable and in line with what I wanted to do/study. I really knew nothing about it, not even the language spoken (Cantonese) or the location (other than that it was in Asia). I knew no one going there either, I was the only person from my school and maybe the entire SUNY system (though I am not sure). Leaving terrified me because I had never traveled completely alone before, but I was set on traveling so I went anyway. I am glad I went. It was the best few months of my life. I made new friends and visited a lot of amazing places while I was there (seven different countries I think). Traveling and living alone built my confidence by showing me what I was capable of doing if I set my mind to it. I loved it so much I plan on going back to China to teach in the fall (Shanghai this time, but I hope to visit Hong Kong while I am there).”

Elisabeth Bablin, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – Fall 2018

Christian Cole

Christian Cole

“I would say that my trip to Tanzania was a life changing in the sense that it affirmed my career goals and provided some reassurance that I am headed on a path I truly believe in.”

Christian Cole – Summer in Tanzania 2017

“Studying in Florence at FUA was the greatest opportunity I’ve ever experienced. From immersive lectures on the steps of monuments, to casual dinners with friends, to conversing with locals, I was able to expand my knowledge every day as well as step out of my comfort zone. The friendships I have made and the wisdom I’ve gained from studying abroad have impacted me in such a way that left me feeling inspired and strengthened!”

Tori Maiolo, Florence, Italy – Summer 2023

I had two main goals for my semester abroad. Academically, as an art history major, I am interested in learning more about modern/contemporary Asian art. I was lucky enough to be able to attend Art Basel Hong Kong, the largest art fair in Asia, where a number of galleries showcased the many up-and-coming and established artists within contemporary Asian art. Secondly, as a Chinese American, I wanted to learn more about my heritage. During my time in Hong Kong, CityU offered programs that brought exchange students to places like a Chinese pastry factory or to a fishing village. I also was able to take classes at CityU like an introductory architectural appreciation class that helped me learn more about both the city’s unique colonial architecture and elements of traditional Chinese architecture. This wasn’t a goal of mine, but as a New Yorker, the one thing I loved the most about Hong Kong was how it has these amazing urban hikes in the hill and mountains above the city. I was often able to go on a trail after classes ended for the day and I felt like that was something that was so unique about my time in the city.”

Kachun Leung, City University of Hong Kong – Spring 2019

Zoe Schwarz

Zoe Schwarz

“The connections I made with my fellow students, my professor and the local community are invaluable. Not only did the classes I took help advance my academic career, they also expanded my understanding of the interconnectedness of different cultures. It is hard to quantify the importance that out-of-the-classroom experiences had on me.”

Zoe Schwarz, Summer in Ireland & England – Summer 2023

(Major: Chemical Engineering with Sustainability Specialization – Class of 2024)

I studied abroad at Yonsei University in South Korea during the Winter Session from 2018-2019. It was honestly one of the best decisions in my life. The class I took was Contemporary Korean Cinema and Society, which fulfilled my ARTS SBC. Other than academics, I was really excited to make the most out of my study-abroad experience and really immerse myself in the culture. With this opportunity, I was able to experience Korean culture first-hand. From enjoying the plethora of cuisines, traveling to different cities, visiting all of the tourist attractions near Seoul, getting my first perm and tattoo, making new friends from other study-abroad programs, and really just seeing how I would handle myself in a foreign country with beginner-level language. My personal goal in life is to experience new things, and I definitely took advantage of Stony Brook’s amazing study abroad program to make the most of my trip.”

William Zhu, Yonsei University – Winter 2019

“Deciding to study abroad in Australia for five months was one of the best decisions I made for myself! I met people from all over the world and traveled to many different places. I was able to take animal science courses that SBU doesn’t offer that would prepare me for vet school. My experience helped me become a more independent, well-rounded student. I believe that having such a unique experience made me a competitive candidate for veterinary school! I am super grateful to have had the opportunity to study in such a beautiful country!” 

Nicole Santacruz, University of Queensland – Fall 2018