Students at Spelman College were ecstatic over the scheduled appearance this month of First Lady Michelle Obama as commencement speaker. That was the case too at South Carolina State University where former Secretary of State Colin Powell is set to speak this month.
The spring commencement speaker likely to steal the show this year, when it’s all said and done however, will likely be Victor Chukwueke, an unknown 25-year-old biochemistry and chemical biology major who addressed fellow graduates of the College of Liberal Arts at Detroit’s Wayne State University on Thursday.
Chukwueke, a Nigerian who has lived in Michigan for 10 years, has spent most of his life overcoming more obstacles to living a `normal’ life than most spring commencement speakers combined. His life story is so inspiring, school officials say, they decided to make a rare exception to the long standing rule of having only the valedictorian speak from the student body.
“Victor has braved situations and challenges that would humble many and that could have instilled self-doubt or insecurity,” says Dr. Kenneth Honn, the veteran Wayne State School of Medicine pathology professor who recommended Chukwueke be invited to speak. “. . . he created goals for his personal and academic life that he has systematically achieved with self-possession beyond his years,” Honn wrote in his letter of nomination.
It was prompted by one of Honn’s research associates, Stephanie Tucker, who had marveled over how exceptional Chukwueke was in performing his volunteer work in pathology department’s research laboratory.
Most who know the aspiring neurosurgeon agree, noting that a combination of good fortune and self-determination combined to transform Chukwueke into what he calls “a new man.”
Born into a poor family in a rural Nigerian village about 100 miles from Lagos, Chukwueke developed a benign tumor during his childhood. Caused by Neurofibromatosis, the tumor grew and grew and grew on the front and top of his face and head causing severe facial deformity, discomfort and eventually costing his sight in his right eye.
Chukwueke’s mother, Mary Chukwueke, spent years making fruitless visits to doctors and hospitals around the country seeking help for her child. One after another, doctors said there was nothing they could do for Victor (most people who know him call him by his first name), as they had neither the expertise nor facilities for the type of surgical work required.
As Victor’s physical features worsened, childhood friends would taunt him as a weird-looking person. They stopped playing with him. Some, out of childhood behavior fueled by adult ignorance, gossiped that his tumor was like a virus. Touching or getting close to him would cause them to look like the monster they characterized him as becoming, some of his playmates would say. Over time, Victor retreated inward and stayed inside his family’s home as much as he could to avoid the shame.
His mother’s persistence eventually lead her to meet Rev. Mother Mary Paul Offiah, a missionary nun who ran a center for orphans and mentally and physically challenged people in Nigeria. Mother Mary Paul agreed to help. Soon, she was in contact with Dr. Ian Jackson, a noted Detroit area plastic surgeon who practiced at Detroit’s Providence Hospital. He agreed to perform the needed surgery at no charge, if Victor could get to the United States.
On, August 21, 2001, at age 15, with funds raised by fellow Nigerians Chukwueke calls “generous Nigerians,” he and Mother Mary Paul were on their way to Detroit, literally in search of a new life. Once in the area, Mother Mary Paul arranged for Victor to live with nuns who belonged to the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy, a Catholic order founded in Nigeria. He still lives with them today.
Over the next seven years, Dr. Jackson would lead six intricate surgeries on Chukwueke to remove the tumor and perform facial reconstruction necessary to give the young man a more normal look for the first time in his life. The surgeries, which required cracking of Victor’s skull among other fragile procedures and removing the bad right eye, lasted from 2002 to 2009.
In between surgeries and recovery periods, during which there were weeks when he could eat only liquid foods, Chukwueke got more and more excited about the possibilities for his future. He let no moss gather under his feet.
First, he studied for and passed the standard exam required to earn a General Education Diploma, called the GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma. In 2006, with life looking up, he enrolled in Oakland Community College in suburban Detroit. There, he earned his associate’s degree in science in the spring of 2008.
That fall, with the financial assistance of a Detroit man to whom Chukwueke was introduced by the nuns, Victor entered Wayne State for study to earn a bachelor’s degree in science. While there, to learn more about medicine and tumors, he began working as a volunteer in a medical school cancer lab. During his two year’s at Wayne, his bachelor’s degree pursuit was interrupted briefly in the spring of 2009 by his fifth surgery. This month (May), assuming there are no last-minute glitches, Victor Chukwueke will be graduating from Wayne State with a B.S. in Biochemistry and Chemical Biology.
“I feel like a new person,” Chukwueke said in a recent telephone interview, referring to his life today compared to the one he seemed destined for before coming to Detroit. “I could not look at myself in the mirror,” he says, referring to how ashamed he felt about how he looked and felt as an adolescent. “You feel like someone just gave you a new life,” he says.
As for his estimated 4,000 fellow graduates, Chukwueke used his real life story to persuade them “anything is possible, that they can overcome any challenge, they can achieve anything.” He’s living proof of this admonition, he says.
For sure, Chukwueke has much more work to do, he says. First, there are at least four more surgical procedures to complete the corrective surgery Dr. Jackson mapped out nearly a decade ago. Jackson, chairman of the medical advisory board of The Smile Train, retired from practice in December. He was out of the country at press time and could not be reached for comment.
Also, Chukwueke says he will be spending the next few months after graduation readying for another educational challenge – medical school. He will be studying for the medical school admissions exam, he says, a required pre-admissions test he took earlier unaware of study courses offered to improve a student’s ability to score well on the exam. Chukwueke’s goal is to learn more about how tumors spread and eventually return to his homeland to practice in underserved communities.
For now, however, his focus is on wrapping up his undergrad school career.
Just hours prior to the graduation, Chukwueke was reunited with his mother, who had arrived in the U.S. on Thursday for her son’s graduation. Chukwueke had been working with school officials and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin to win Nigerian government approval for his mother to come to Detroit for the graduation. He had not seen his family – his mom, his blind father whom his mom takes care of, and six siblings – since he left his home country in August, 2001. Mother Mary Paul, his key link between Nigeria and the U.S., was at the graduation program in spirit only, Chukwueke says. She died of a brain tumor in 2006.
“We all have speed bumps in our lives everyday,” says Christopher Harris, business administrator in the school of medicine. Chukwueke’s have been “monumental,” Harris says. “He’s cleared them all. Whatever the roadblocks are, Victor just moves forward.”
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