Speciose Nyamatereko taught herself English by watching YouTube videos. "I'm someone who doesn't have a high school diploma. I didn't even go to middle school. But now I will have a college degree." (Courtesy photo)

Class of 2020: Speciose Nyamatereko came to the U.S as a refugee with no formal education. She graduates this spring from VCU.

A refugee from the Congo, Nyamatereko went from teaching herself English by watching YouTube videos to earning a college degree in criminal justice.

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Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories.

Speciose Nyamatereko was separated from her family at a young age during a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and grew up in refugee camps. Her extraordinary journey has taken her from that tragic beginning to Virginia Commonwealth University, from which she is poised to graduate in May.

Living in the camps, she received essentially no formal education. “I attended high school for one day [at a school for refugees in Kenya],” she said. “And then they closed it.”

Nyamatereko was resettled in the United States. She arrived in Texas but wanted to live in a place where it snowed.

“I wanted to see snow more than anything. I started Googling. I was like, where can I fit in? And where can I see snow?” she said. “Virginia came into my mind and so I came to Virginia.”

She moved to Charlottesville, where she worked at the University of Virginia in Student Housing. She began teaching herself English by watching YouTube videos and practicing reading books. A UVA student volunteered to tutor her during lunch breaks.

“I would go clean their rooms, and then I stayed there for my break time outside,” she said. “She would go over the basics — ABCD, things like that.”

At a Charlottesville church, she met a woman who, like her, spoke French. They would talk often, and the woman would give Nyamatereko rides to work instead of her walking miles. They began volunteering together too, doing community service projects through the church. The woman, who has become something of an adoptive mother, has a large family and they all love Nyamatereko so much that they celebrate birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas with her.

“I'm self-taught but also I had people around me who have really supported me,” Nyamatereko said. “Daniele, I call her my mom, she has volunteered herself to me every day, she has been there every time I need her.”

Nyamatereko enrolled at Piedmont Virginia Community College and eventually transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University. When enrolling, her lack of a high school transcript caused a snag in the financial aid process, but she contacted VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and explained her background.

“I had to explain to him what happened. He fixed everything,” she said. “There’s not so many people who understand my situation, but VCU did. Not going to school, that was not my fault. That was the situation I [was forced] into.”

At VCU, Nyamatereko began studying biology but had trouble without certain foundations in math and science.

“Professors would refer to things [the students had been expected to] learn in high school. I didn't go to high school,” she said. “It's very hard, and also English is not my first or my second language. I always tell people I have to work three times harder.”

Nyamatereko began majoring in criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. She will graduate this semester.

“I'm someone who doesn't have a high school diploma. I didn't even go to middle school,” she said. “But now I will have a college degree.”

I'm someone who doesn't have a high school diploma. I didn't even go to middle school. But now I will have a college degree.

She has been accepted to the Wilder School’s master’s program in homeland security and is aiming to attend this summer.

“I am focused on the future,” she said. “I chose homeland security because I don’t want what happened in my country to happen here. I have seen what war does. I have seen how it does damage. I do not know how to put it. It is damaging. It is painful. It is torturing. It wipes away the entire life of a person. My childhood is lost. I don't want any other person to have that.”

Patrick Lowery, Ph.D., an assistant professor of criminal justice in the Wilder School, said Nyamatereko stood out as a “very hard-working student who really wants to learn, not just receive a good grade for the credential aspect of it.”

“Perhaps even more important about Speciose is the content of her character,” he said. “In the face of various difficulties and adversities she has faced in life, she has nonetheless remained a very kind-hearted, compassionate and moral person.”

Nyamatereko was a recipient of a Black History in the Making Award from the Department of African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

She is also involved in writing a book, “Untold Stories,” chronicling the stories of women in her native country.

“My goal since I was young, I wanted more than just being a refugee,” she said. “Wherever I put my feet there, I want to be a citizen. I want to fit in and be part of society because my perspective and my belief is that we are all human beings, it doesn't matter the color of your skin or where you came from, you have a duty to protect the country and by helping people in the community.”

Her story, she said, has two lessons.

One is that “if you can dream it, you can do it.”

“My personal dream was to go to school, and it happened,” she said.

The second is that there are people out there who will help you succeed.

“Ask others for support, and you will find it,” she said. “My passion is to help people who need justice. Just follow your passion. As long as you find your circle [of support], you will make it.”