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Online natural resources student travels around the world to attend commencement

May 15, 2016

Lowaeli Damalu and Tim Sands
Lowaeli Damalu (left) shows her master's degree with Virginia Tech President Tim Sands at Sunday's National Capital Region commencement ceremony. Damalu, who has worked as a wildlife conservationist in Tanzania for 25 years, studied in the online master of natural resources program and traveled more than 7,600 miles to attend Sunday's ceremony.

Working toward a master’s degree in natural resources has been part of Lowaeli Damalu’s life for the past six years and a dream of hers for even longer than that.

On Sunday, May 15, she attended the Virginia Tech National Capital Region Commencement to receive her degree, having traveled all the way from Tanzania in East Africa to participate in the ceremony.

Damalu is principal of Tanzania’s Pasiansi Wildlife Training Institute in Mwanza, operated by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism’s Wildlife Division. She is the first woman to head the institute, responsible for training wildlife and park rangers in law enforcement and sustainable wildlife management since it was established in 1966.

Actively engaged as a wildlife conservationist for 25 years, Damalu has held a number of senior-level positions in Tanzania’s government, including overseeing efforts to combat poaching and wildlife trafficking in law enforcement operations in the Wildlife Division.

Since she was in high school, Damalu knew she wanted to pursue a master’s degree. Higher education in Africa is limited but is essential to contributing to positive growth and development.

“It was important that I bolster my knowledge and skills in wildlife conservation and management to further my career and be able to more effectively implement my role as principal at Pasiansi and in the ministry,” she said.

Damalu also knew she would like to obtain her degree from a well-regarded university in the United States. But there were obstacles to achieving that goal, including the cost as well as professional and family obligations that would not accommodate her leaving Tanzania.

Were it not for Virginia Tech’s online master of natural resources program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Africa MENTOR Fellowship Program, a determination that spanned beyond geographical boundaries, and the support of her employer and Virginia Tech faculty, she may never have found herself celebrating her graduation in Northern Virginia.

Heather E. Eves, faculty member at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, met Damalu eight years ago when working with Nancy Gelman, program officer for Wildlife Without Borders at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to identify fellows for its inaugural mentoring program. At the conclusion of her fellowship, Damalu confided her wish to earn a master’s degree from a U.S. institution.

“Nancy and I were immediately impressed by Lowaeli and we continue to be,” said Eves, who served as Damalu’s advisor at Virginia Tech. “We know how hard she works and how well-respected she is in her profession for her leadership, integrity, and efforts on behalf of African wildlife conservation.”

That fellowship was a steppingstone that helped Damalu secure funds for the costs of the master’s degree from her ministry. Gelman also helped to secure external funding. Kieran Lindsey, associate director of online programs, actively worked with Eves and Virginia Tech administrators in Blacksburg to manage this first-time arrangement of funding and logistics.

Taking online courses in Tanzania presented technical challenges. Internet service is unreliable, and Damalu said she also “had to work hard to improve my personal computer skills to be able to navigate through websites and email programs that were essential for online study.”

Eves said she never doubted that Damalu would complete the program. She is hosting Damalu during her weeklong American stay and is making sure she has an opportunity to visit both the National Capital Region and Blacksburg campuses as well as a U.S. National Park.

Damalu said she is very grateful to all of the Virginia Tech faculty and staff who were committed to helping her achieve her dream.

“I’ve been saving up for a long time to make this trip and attend commencement, and I wouldn’t have missed it. I am so proud to be among the Virginia Tech students who received graduate degrees on Sunday,” said Damalu, who also has the distinction of traveling more than 7,600 miles to claim her master of natural resources degree.

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