Working toward a master’s degree in natural resources has been part of Lowaeli Damalu’s life for the past six years and her dream for even longer. On May 15, she attended the Virginia Tech National Capital Region Commencement to receive her degree, having traveled more than 7,600 miles from Tanzania to attend.

Damalu is the first woman to head Tanzania’s Pasiansi Wildlife Training 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.

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. She also knew she would like to obtain her degree from a well-regarded university in the U.S., but there were obstacles, including the cost as well as professional and family obligations that would not accommodate her leaving Tanzania. The college’s online master of natural resources program, one of several offered by the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), provided an ideal solution.

CLiGS faculty member Heather E. Eves 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. “Nancy and I were immediately impressed by Lowaeli and we continue to be,” said Eves, who served as Damalu’s advisor. “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.”

Taking online courses in Tanzania was not without technical challenges. Internet service is unreliable and, “I 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,” Damalu said.

Eves said she never doubted that Damalu would complete the program. She hosted Damalu during her weeklong American stay, accompanying her on visits to both the National Capital Region and Blacksburg campuses as well as Shenandoah National Park. Damalu was overwhelmed at all the trees she saw along the way, marveling at how much natural forest remains in such a “developed” country.

Damalu is very grateful to 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,” she said.