Herman Chenwi's education has taken him from classrooms in his native Cameroon where multiple students share one desk to the palatial halls of the new Health Services Building at Howard Community College.
Chenwi, 23, graduated from HCC Tuesday at Merriweather Post Pavilion with associate degrees in general studies and pre-medicine.
He was one of more than 500 students to participate in commencement activities, but the class of 2014 includes 1,196 students receiving a degree, certificate, or both. The size of the college's 43rd graduating class, as well as the number of credentials earned, increased about 9 percent from last year.
But Chenwi's journey to graduation is unlike any other HCC student.
If it weren't for a green card lottery system offered by the United States in all but nearly 20 countries, Chenwi may have been studying medicine in Cameroon instead.
Shortly after graduating high school in 2009, Chenwi enrolled in the lottery, unbeknownst to his parents, which grants 50,000 people worldwide the opportunity to apply for a diversity visa.
A year later, he learned he had been selected.
"After being all excited for a bit, we backed up and we're like, 'OK it could be a scam,'" Chenwi recalled.
But it wasn't a scam, and in May 2011 Chenwi settled in Columbia with his aunt and cousin before enrolling at Howard Community College.
Three years later, Chenwi joined his fellow graduates at Merriweather to celebrate their graduation, where he also served as the keynote speaker.
"Overall, my message is, no matter what your hardship is or what your background is, it's possible to be extremely successful at HCC," he said. "I came there and I knew nothing and I was able to make it. I'm hoping that other students know that you can come there and make it."
Chenwi has secured an internship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the summer before he will continue his studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County this fall.
In applying to UMBC, Chenwi enlisted the help of his coach through the college's Step UP program — college President Kate Hetherington.
Hetherington, who reached out to UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III on Chenwi's behalf, called him a "true servant leader."
"He's always trying to help others and his focus is not on himself, it's on others," she said.
The Step UP program at HCC pairs a faculty member with a student to advise them over the course of the school year.
Hetherington called Chenwi's willingness to help others on campus unparalleled.
"I think he's great now, but he's going to be someone to watch going forward," she said.
At HCC, Chenwi has participated in alternative break trips to Michigan, New Jersey, and the Dominican Republic, where students have assisted on Habitat for Humanity projects.
He has also served as a volunteer tax preparer, served as a peer mentor and a scribe for students with disabilities, while playing on the college soccer team.
"It's always a learning experience," he said. "I think I've learned a lot."
For Brittany Budden, director of the college's center for service learning, it's difficult to reminisce about Chenwi's work on campus or through service learning projects across the country and abroad without becoming emotional.
"Every time he smiles, he lights up the room," she said as she fought back tears. "He brings so much energy and positivity into each and every day."
Budden, who first met Chenwi during the fall 2012 semester, describes him as someone with an amazing knack for nurturing relationships.
"He just believes that if he can support someone else that he's strengthening, essentially, the world in so many ways," she said.
Chenwi, although he didn't work there, spent a lot of time in the service learning office when he was in need of a place to study. He said it was his favorite spot on campus.
Laura Edwards, a student worker in the office, described Chenwi as very chill, someone who laughs easily and "always in a state of wonder."
Edwards, who grew up in China, said meeting Chenwi two years ago made her feel more at home at HCC since they were able to relate with their experiences from living abroad.
"It was just cool to know that Howard County has a whole variety of people and that there are students from all over the world that come to HCC," she said. "That was really amazing for me to discover."
For Chenwi, it's the people at HCC who have made his college experience memorable.
"It's not just a class how they come in and do their job," he said. "They [teachers] are very approachable and helpful. Everybody here has a been a support pillar to every student that comes here."
Chenwi struggled to name which professors had the most impact on him.
"Really, I could name like 50 names because there are a lot of them," he said, laughing.
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Chenwi, who lives in Harpers Choice, said HCC has served as his home away from home for the past three years.
"My home has to be as beautiful as this before I stay home on Sundays," he said. "It's just a better thinking space for me."
Chenwi, who has two siblings, is the first in his family to receive a college degree.
"Graduating is huge. My dad has been calling me a lot recently just because he really wants to know how I'm doing, like if I'm feeling nervous and all that," he said. "It's pretty big for everyone in my family.'.
If not for winning the lottery in 2009, Chenwi said he probably would have continued his pursuit of medicine in his native Cameroon.
But for now, he'll pursue his interest in medicine stateside, although a return to Cameroon isn't out of the question.
"Because medicine is my passion, I'm hoping that I can obtain enough knowledge to be able to go back and help people that are in the community," he said.