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International Women's Day 2023 Profile: Karren Gunalan

For International Women’s Day 2023, we are sharing conversations with international women who are part of our UD community. Karren Gunalan is a graduate student from Malaysia currently studying in UD’s Masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) degree program. She is also the Graduate Assistant and Resident Coordinator (RC) for the Global Learning Living Community (GLLC), located in Caldwell Apartments. 

What brought you to UD?

It was the Golden Gate Bridge! My grandparents once showed me a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I was struck by how beautiful it was. Growing up in Malaysia as a minority, there was always the understanding that if you wanted to explore all the opportunities available to you, it would mean going overseas. It’s actually really common for Malaysian students to want to go abroad for higher education (almost 70,000 Malaysian students went abroad this last year!). My parents always encouraged me to study hard to have that choice, and I saw in the media how the U.S. was portrayed as a place of opportunity. My mom works in a bank, and loves to hear her customers’ stories. She would hear about friends' children who studied in the U.S. and the opportunities they had, and then would tell me those stories. So, from an early age, I knew I needed to work hard and be able to study abroad.

How do your multicultural experiences inspire you in everyday life?

Growing up multicultural in Malaysia has so many benefits that shapes an intercultural perspective. First, the food! The authentic food of other cultures that is readily available and the acceptance of everyone to be part of each other's celebration and culture is part of daily life in Malaysia. Being multicultural and living in a multicultural country, I got to experience every celebration like my own because of having diverse friends. During celebrations, we practice something called "open houses" where we open our houses and invite friends, family and neighbors to celebrate the festivals with us. 

There aren’t many Malaysian students in Dayton, and I’m the only one at UD, so wherever I go, I get the opportunity to share my culture. I love that about my experience here in the U.S., and love my culture, so it’s a wonderful part of my journey. I’m also a minority because I’m Indian, and in Malaysia, Indians make up the smallest ethnic minority, just 7%. Though I am ethnically Indian, my Malaysian culture is part of my Indian heritage, so that’s different from many Indian international students here at UD. A lot of times I get mistaken for an Indian student by the Indian students here! My capstone project for my MSEd looks at mental wellbeing and help-seeking behavior of Indian international students in the US. My identity helps to both connect me to the population I’m studying and also separate me from it, given that I’m also Malaysian.

How have your experiences in the GLLC strengthened your intercultural skills?

A lot of what I do in the GLLC is to connect international and domestic students to mutually support each other and their university experience. Being able to share my own culture and experiences of studying abroad is something I have learned so much about, and I really enjoy being able to support other students as they explore their own intercultural journey. I understand what international students are going through, since I have been through it myself! International students and domestic students really aren’t that different…they all want to make friends, explore their world, and find the support they need. I encourage them to be themselves, and you will find your people! Being at UD is all about exploring new experiences and getting to know new people. The more open you can be, the more you’ll find new friends and connections. In the GLLC, we do this with events and informal meetings where students can chill out together, meet new people, and ask questions about concerns they have. We also host cultural presentations in the community space where students can share about their traditions together. This year we’ve all learned about Dia de los Muertos, Thanksgiving, Diwali, and other holidays. I’ve been really fortunate to be involved in developing substantial student programming to bring domestic and international students together, and everyone benefits! 

What does it mean to you to be an international woman on International Women’s Day?

When I reflect on my intercultural experiences, and my sense of identity a year before I came to the U.S. and now, I am grateful that being a global citizen means that I have been able to explore the idea of identity and intersectionality, and what that means for students in higher education. In Malaysia, conversations around race, sexual orientation, and mental health aren’t happening as often as they could, though progress has been made. My parents always taught me the value and importance of respecting others’ opinions and choices, and this has become even more important as I navigate the world as an international woman. I know that part of my work in higher education is to bring awareness to minority experiences, and to do this, I have had a solid foundation from my parents, who always taught me that understanding begins with respect. As I have been able to explore the world, I know I am working to build understanding, share my culture, and bring awareness to different ways of communicating…here at UD and beyond.

What is a tradition from home that you keep with you? 

I really enjoy visiting temples during my cultural festivals such as Diwali, Ponggal, and others. I also wear my pottu/bindi on my forehead all the time. Another tradition that I keep with me and make sure everyone experiences are birthday celebrations and enjoying birthday cakes. I make sure everyone around me has a cake to cut and celebrate because it is important in my family to do it. I definitely miss my mom’s cooking, and miss having visitors at our house all the time. It’s one of the traditions I’ve continued in the GLLC here at UD!

For questions about the GLLC, email

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