Ndeye Ndaw and Awa Sy aren’t the typical college friends graduating together.
Sure they helped each other through difficult assignments, set up study times and pointed out which professors they liked the best.
But this mother-daughter duo also reminded each other that perseverance will allow you to reach your dream — even if you have to move halfway around the world to do it.
The two earned degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington on the same day this December. Ndaw completed her master’s in social work, while Sy earned her bachelor’s in communications.
Ndaw couldn’t hold back the tears when posing for pictures with her daughter after graduation — the two dressed in black caps and gowns trimmed with the university’s blue and orange.
She recalled how the path through college was anything but typical for the two, whose respective journeys were marked by political unrest, family responsibilities and medical concerns.
“It’s hard, but you have to never give up and take your own time to success,” Ndaw said. “It’s not what you sacrifice, but what you achieve when you work toward your goal.”
Ndaw, 52, grew up in Senegal. By the time she finished high school, the country was relatively stable but political tensions were often palpable. Her father wanted all nine of his children to study at a university, repeatedly saying, “Education is the key to success.”
But the political climate made it difficult for Ndaw. In the late 1980s, there were allegations of election fraud and sometimes violent clashes between government officials and protesters. Meanwhile, ethnic conflicts along the border had Senegal and Mauritania on the verge of war.
So she left the West African country and moved to the Ivory Coast, where she worked as a lab technician on an AIDS research project. Ndaw said much of her work was through the U.S. Embassy, which meant she and her husband could travel to America. The couple saw the opportunities here — particularly for college — so they applied for the hard-to-win immigration lottery.
The diversity immigration visa lottery receives millions of applications each year. In 2018, for example, there were 14.7 million entries, but only about 50,000 were approved.
In 2003, Ndaw’s husband was selected in the lottery, so the family moved to New York briefly before settling in Irving. It was scary at first with no one but strangers around, Ndaw said.
Raising her three daughters was a priority for Ndaw, who worked as a technician for a blood bank. She had little free time.
When her kids were old enough to be more self-sufficient, she began taking classes at a community college. At first, it was just to work on improving her English writing skills. Ndaw kept telling herself to go just a little bit more to earn an associate’s degree. And then a little bit more to earn her bachelor’s.
Ndaw had her sights on a biology degree so she could continue work in the health field. But the French speaker struggled in advanced science classes, largely because of language gaps. She was disheartened but determined to find a fit. Then an adviser suggested social work, explaining how in such a career she could help patients navigate the complex health care system.
She had a new goal. And that meant juggling a full-time job, four or five classes and her family life. Often, she couldn’t tackle her homework until after the rest of the family went to bed. Sometimes she only had three hours of sleep.
“When everything got hard and I wanted to quit, I thought of my father. I did this for him,” Ndaw said, tearing up. “And for my children.”
Ndaw earned her bachelor’s in May 2018, and then set out on an advanced plan to go “just a bit further” toward a master’s.
Along the way, her daughter Sy graduated from high school and began studying at UT-Arlington, where she had a double major in the communications field studying public relations and journalism.
The two would take over the dining room table for studying. Sy would help her mother work on English skills. Ndaw would advise her daughter on which classes to take and which to avoid.
Sy enjoyed bonding with her mother over school work. It meant helping each other out. Sy, who still lives at home, would pitch in to cook or drive her younger sisters to school events.
The chaotic college life was more manageable because they had each other, Sy said. But it could get awkward. She recalled walking across campus one day and suddenly spotting her mother deep in conversation with a group of young students.
“It was funny for a moment because I saw her and she was just this regular college student,” Sy said. “But then she saw me and just beamed like a mom and yelled, ‘Awa! Awa! Come meet my friends!’”
Sy, 23, faced her own challenges as she worked toward her degree. She has Crohn’s disease and was hospitalized for most of November 2018 because of complications. That semester was a wash.
Though frustrated, Sy said she never considered quitting — just adapting. She dropped one of her majors so her graduation would only be delayed one semester.
“My mother taught me that you can always push through and do things on your own time and in your own way,” she said.
The change meant Sy would cross the stage the same day as Ndaw. She’d brag to anyone who asked about her own graduation that the day was even more important because her mom was earning a master’s.
Their constant focus on academics inspired Ndaw’s husband — Cheikh Sy — to go back to school to study computer engineering. He’ll be attending UT-Arlington with the couple’s second oldest, who learned she was accepted to the university while the family was at the graduation services.
While graduation day was theirs to share, Ndaw could not stop bragging on her daughter’s accomplishments and boasting that Sy would soon be starting an internship at a Dallas public relations firm.
“I’m just really proud of her,” Ndaw said. “She knows the things I brought with me from my parents — the belief that education is everything. And I know that she and all my daughters can do anything.”
(Article written by Eva-Marie Ayala)