From IPALs to 'I do'

UC alumni reflect on the global experiences that drew them together

Newlyweds Zoe Lee and Christian Charles first crossed paths as freshman in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Cincinnati in 2015. If not for the international community at UC, Lee and Charles might have never met.

The pair can look back on that meeting as the moment of intersection that changed their paths for life.

The web of connections between them became even closer once Lee began volunteering for International Partners and Leaders (IPALs), the organization that welcomes international students—including Charles—to campus.

That local start in Cincinnati blossomed into an international romance, crossing continents and ultimately leading to marriage. 

Just Pals

A proud Cincinnatian, Lee had decided to attend UC because of a partnership between the university and Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), a strategic enrollment initiative that focuses on recruitment and graduation of CPS students at UC. She was also interested in the international co-op opportunities that the university offered. Through a combination of scholarships and grants, Lee was able to pursue her education.

Charles, an international student from Haiti, had first heard about UC from a track coach during a competition. He raced to apply and landed a spot on the track and field team, though after a semester, he pivoted from his athletic career to focus more on his studies.

The two started off just friends, and they still remember the first time they met. After an anime club meeting in their first term, a mutual friend introduced them during a meal at CenterCourt, a UC dining hall.

The two knew each other for about a year before they made it official. They were both involved in a lot of the same organizations—Anime Club, Engineers Without Borders, Club Cincy, volunteer events and, most notably, a group called IPALs.

“We just kept running into each other at every single club freshman year,” Charles said, adding, “IPALs helped [with] that.”


As undergraduate students, Zoe Lee and Christian Charles carve pumpkins at an IPALs event.

As undergraduate students, Zoe Lee and Christian Charles carve pumpkins at an IPALs event. Photo/UC International

IPALs was one of the first social groups to reach out to Charles when he arrived in Cincinnati, inviting him to football games and other social events.  

The group, International Partners and Leaders, is a student organization that brings together US and international students. It is supported and managed by UC International, the office that centralizes UC’s international services and strategies. The 50 international and domestic student leaders of IPALS host programs to assist international students with acclimation to UC and Cincinnati.

“As soon as I got [to UC], there was a community,” Charles said. He went to the organization’s fall retreat during his first semester and learned more about American culture.

“I’m so glad I did, because you make so many great friends through IPALs,” said Lee. “It’s such a welcoming community, no matter where you’re from.”

As a domestic student, Lee did not hear about IPALs as soon as Charles.

“It’s always a struggle getting Americans aware of the international opportunities,” she said.

After getting involved in WorldFest, an annual event hosted by UC’s Ethnic Programs and Services, Lee started looking for an opportunity to connect with people one-on-one. She had a couple of friends join IPALS and attend their events, so she decided to become an IPAL herself.

Lee and Charles continued running into each other as they built a network of friends and classmates from all over the world.  

“We had a lot of common friends that were there,” Charles said. “Our international community and our main friends were from IPALs.”  

Connecting Cultures

Zoe Lee and Christian Charles form a UC with their arms in front of UC's Baldwin Hall.

Lee and Charles on their graduation day in 2020. Photo/provided

In the fall term of sophomore year, Lee and Charles made their relationship official after a date on the lawn of Sigma Sigma Commons.

Not long afterwards, Lee accepted a co-op experience working as a teaching assistant for the Joint Co-op Institute, a cooperative engineering program with Chongqing University in China. The pair had to decide early on how to tackle the long stretch apart.

The two texted regularly to keep the physical and emotional distance between them as short as possible.

“If you can’t see each other in person then definitely make it a priority for video calls,” Lee said. “In this day and age, there’s no excuse if you have an internet connection.”

After managing long distance for a semester, Lee and Charles faced another potential separation. Charles had originally planned to work in Germany, but he switched his co-op in order to spend time with Lee, who was doing hers in Tokyo, Japan. During the spring and summer semester of their fourth year, the two worked on opposite sides of the city but met up on the weekends to explore local sites together.

Lee and Charles bonded together in Japan but still faced some culture shock as they adjusted to a life together back in Cincinnati. As they became more serious about each other and began to picture a future together, Lee immersed herself within Charles’s Haitian upbringing and culture. According to Charles, Haiti is a very family-oriented place, while people in the United States live a more independent lifestyle. People in Haiti generally live in the same area and make food for the whole family and friends.

“[The U.S. is] not as family focused or anything like that,” explained Charles. “It was a bit hard at first when she came to visit my family; we would all spend a lot of the time together. It’s more of a community mindset compared to your personal mindset.”

On top of it all, their families faced a language barrier since Haiti’s native languages are Haitian Creole and French, but they make it work by speaking bits of French to each other.

By their graduation in 2020, Lee and Charles had gained experience in their respective fields of study but also in the world around them.

“UC offers a lot of [global] opportunities that other universities don’t,” noted Lee. “And being able to have that opportunity for connection is something really unique... especially with the size of the campus.”

Tying the Knot

Zoe Lee and Christian Charles, in wedding gown and suit, stroll down a path holding hands.

Lee and Charles on their wedding day in June, 2022. Photo/provided

The two College of Engineering and Applied Science alums moved to Boulder, Colorado, where Lee recently completed her master’s in aerospace engineering and Charles works for HP as a software engineer.

They tied the knot in Loveland, Colorado in 2022, beginning a life of newfound adventures. Their wedding day was filled with love, family and friends, including some from UC and IPALs. They also connected loved ones from a distance, livestreaming the ceremony via Zoom.

Coming from two very different worlds, the pair recognize that the university played a pivotal part in uniting them as Bearcats. From near and far, their love story all comes back to UC, the place where they spent most of their time building their relationship and getting to know each other.

“UC, it’s still nostalgic,” Charles said. “Whenever we go back in December for Christmas, we’ll go back to campus and walk around, because it’s like memory lane.”

Featured image at top: Zoe Lee and Christian Charles pose together on one of their many global adventures. Photo/provided

UC the World

The University of Cincinnati welcomes students from over 110 countries annually and prepares them to make a real-world impact. Learn more about experiential learning opportunities through study abroad and international co-op.

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