A student’s remarkable journey to start their undergraduate degree at 28, living their dream

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In his village of Kouméa in Togo, Africa, 8-year-old Hezouwe Walada saw nearly half of his community, including three of his young cousins, die of malaria in the early 2000s. He then decided to become a doctor. .

But his dream seemed unrealizable: his family was poor, the nearest school was far from his village, and he didn’t even have shoes.

After 20 years, nearly 6,000 miles and a host of trials and tribulations, Walada began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a freshman majoring in biochemistry this fall, with the intention of ” eventually go to medical school.

“Anything is possible if you’re willing to work hard and make the sacrifices,” says Walada, graduate of the UW Odyssey Project and Badger Ready. “All you have to do is believe and keep asking questions. “

From Togo to Madison

As a child, when Walada decided he wanted to study medicine one day, he asked his father if he could go to school. He could, his father said, but not until he had done the morning chores. So Walada woke up at 3 a.m., worked the farm for three hours, walked 15 miles to school and then walked 15 miles home at the end of the day.

“When I finished my chores, I started running to go to school,” he says. “I just wanted to be a doctor and help people in my village and around the world. “

Walada studied a lot and was admitted to one of the best high schools in Togo. He left home and all he knew.

“I felt different because all my classmates had nice clothes, nice shoes and money,” he says. “I came there with two shirts, three shorts and a pair of shoes. Even though I was at the top of the class, I felt like I didn’t belong. I was always sad because I had nothing.

photo by Hezouwe Walada
Hezouwe Walada entered UW-Madison this fall as an undergraduate student in biochemistry.

But Walada persevered and eventually got a visa to travel to the United States. At 17, he left his country for the first time, alone.

“I was terrified, but I kept remembering my dream,” he says. “I knew people needed me to be a doctor. I will never forget the suffering I saw in my village. I still have flashbacks today.

In 2009, Walada arrived in Madison. Years before, he had heard a teacher say that the University of Wisconsin-Madison was a prestigious institution. He did some research online and decided to become a badger.

But his dream was delayed for another 10 years.

Lacking resources and knowing very little English, Walada struggled in Wisconsin. He enrolled in Madison College, but without a stable home and sometimes even food to eat, his studies stalled. He started to “work like a fool”, mainly as a caregiver, to earn and save money. He met his wife, settled down and they had a daughter.

Walada began to wonder if he could ever return to his dream of becoming a doctor, but he refused to give up. Then someone told him about Project Odyssey.

Continuing his odyssey

In 2017, Walada applied to the UW Odyssey Project, a six-credit English literature course that helps low-income adults earn a college degree. Odyssey has become Walada’s return to the life of his dream.

“When I found out that I had entered Odyssey, I was so happy,” he says. “Odyssey gave me friends, taught me to be confident and showed me that I can defy the odds and make my dream come true. I needed Odyssey to be the person I am today.

By reading, writing, and participating in lively discussions about Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King Jr, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry and more, Walada found her own voice and found another family among her Odyssey classmates. He heard stories that sounded like his own, learned more about slavery, and was inspired to fight injustice and for equality in the United States. He shared stories from his culture and his homeland.

“Odyssey was my family, not just the school. Everyone was so welcoming and I felt I was no longer alone, ”he says. “Odyssey really taught me about life, about ambition and how to gain the confidence to be who I want to be.”

Walada then found another opportunity to continue progressing towards his dream: the Badger Ready program.

Prepare Badger

In 2019, Walada joined the Badger Ready program, which helps mature students make the transition to college by supporting them through tailor-made UW-Madison courses. As an Honors University student and scholarship recipient, Walada, who speaks seven languages, immersed himself in a 100 class first semester of English.

“I was so excited to finally be here, I went to class the day before class and chose where I wanted to sit,” he says. “I sat alone in the classroom and thanked God for this opportunity and this trip. “

In the second semester, as a Badger Ready student, Walada took a 130 biology course. He was devastated when he got 50 percent on his first exam. But his Badger Ready advisor encouraged him to ask questions and visit the professor during office hours. He did so – after every lecture – and walked out of the classroom with an A.

Walada successfully completed the requirements of his three-semester program and was ready to apply as a transfer student at UW-Madison for fall 2020.

“I’m on a mission here in the United States,” he says, adding that he sees injustice in America and promises to work there. “It’s a great country, and if I have an opportunity, I’ll take it. I want to give something back to this country, to Africa, to the world.

Closer to a dream come true

As a newly admitted transfer student in the midst of a volatile period, Walada is now an undergraduate major in biochemistry with a focus on pre-health.

“I’m ready,” he says, adding that he’s been studying all summer to prepare for the classes he’ll be taking this fall. “I can’t believe this dream is coming true.”

After his undergraduate studies, Walada wants to attend UW-Madison ‘School of Medicine and Public Health to study cardiology.

Where does he see himself in 20 years? Her dreams remain big and judging by her journey so far anything is possible: “I hope to help my country make changes to the medical system, maybe I will also help other communities around the world, through Doctors Without Borders. “

In the meantime, Walada plans to enjoy her time at UW-Madison, getting involved with a pre-health group, social justice organizations and with the black community. He wants to savor his accomplishments, keep working hard and pay it forward.

“You can’t understand how thrilled I am to be a student here,” he says. “My advice to people who are fighting for their dreams is to believe in yourself. Seize opportunities. Fight for your moment because it will come for you.


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