Former GCC International Students Counselor Passes Unexpectedly

Angel Silva, El Vaquero Managing Editor

Phillip Kamara-Kay, international students counselor and social sciences professor, passed away over the summer at the age of 67 in his home country of Sierra Leone, three years after retiring from Glendale College at the end of the ’09 spring semester.

Originally an international student, Kamara-Kay came to the US in the late ‘60s. He enrolled in GCC with a sponsorship from a minister in his country. He transferred from Glendale to Azusa Pacific University, where he earned a bachelors and a masters in higher education. From there he pursued a PhD at USC.

“In USC he was exposed to people in many different cultures, and in his classes he was seen as a representative of African culture,” said Mariah Ribeiro, international student counselor.

That cultural experience would influence Kamara-Kay deeply, who would come back to Glendale. There he started as an adjunct faculty and eventually became part of permanent staff working with international students.

“He was very dedicated to working with international students,” said Jewel Price, dean of student services. “He went out of his way to do a lot of things to help the students because a lot of them come a long way from home and there’s lots of things that they to know in terms of living and adjusting here.”

Kamara-Kay worked on several aspects of the international students program at GCC, often going out of his way to ensure that those students were taken care off.

For example, there was an issue with a Japanese student’s paperwork that would have prohibited him from returning to GCC.

“With the time difference, there was difficulty getting a hold of them,” said Price. The student would send a message in morning, Japan time, but when it reached Glendale it was a day late.

“When it seemed that this was definitely going to be a no-go, Philip finally resolved the issue by purchasing a prepaid calling card at his own expense so that he could call the student from the college’s phone and explain all of the procedures in live time,” ESL division administrative assistant Luisa Salazar said in an email.

“The student’s paperwork got in just in the nick of time and all was well,” said Salazar. “I doubt that the student ever knew about Philip’s efforts.”

For Henan Joof, who came to GCC as an international student and later became part of staff, Kamara-Kay’s assistance was essential.

“I came to GCC after realizing the UCLA was not an option I could pursue for financial reasons,” said Joof. “He showed a recent immigrant how to navigate the US educational system.”

For Kamara-Kay, helping international students was just a larger part of his passion for global education, in particular for his home country of Sierra Leone.

“He started a foundation to raise money so that he could build a middle school, and also out of his own funds sponsored a number of scholarships for girls in Sierra Leone because a lot of girls don’t have the opportunity to continue their education from elementary school,” said Price.

Kamara-Kay would find ways to tie his work at GCC to his push for education overseas.

When he was here he would collect old textbooks, and he had contacts in Sierra Leone to collect them,” said David Nelson, international recruitment and outreach director.

His family would remain an important part of his life, although their stories would be mired in tragedy.

According to Price, Kamara-Kay managed to bring one of his nieces to the US to receive an education, but she died in a car crash a few years back.

Associate professor Valerie Rhaney met Kamaya-Kay’s mother, whom had been brought to the US but couldn’t become accustomed to life here.

“Unfortunately, she did not speak English, nor was she able to drive, so desperately missing her country she returned to the homeland that she loved,” said Rhaney in an email.

Sierra Leone would face a civil war from 1991 to 2001, leaving Kamara-Kay’s family in disarray.

“During the good part of the years he was here, his country was going through a tough time, and he had family during the conflict,” said Nelson.

“I will never forget the day Philip came to my office to show me a picture of his mother dying of starvation,” said Rhaney. “He was heartbroken as any son would be and so was I.

Returning to Sierra Leone was a priority for Kamara-Kay.

“For many years he wanted to go back to his home country, but he couldn’t go because the country was at war and it was a dangerous situation,” said Price.

Finally, in 2009 was able to return to Sierra Leone after retiring from GCC, spending the rest of his days there until his death.

“We have very little details about his last years in Sierra Leone,” said Ribeiro.

Kamara-Kay is survived by his wife, son and daughter. Glendale College has set up a scholarship in his honor that will go to an African-American student who qualifies. Donations can be made at the Scholarship Office.