April 2011: Victor had been selected for the honor of addressing his fellow graduates at the Wayne State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement on May 5, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan.
It seems that everybody who meets Victor walks away inspired. While earning his degree in Biochemistry & Chemical Biology he has always been on the Dean’s list, he has run a marathon to raise money for charity, he volunteers in a research lab working to determine how tumors spread and he aspires to become a missionary doctor so he can alleviate the pain and suffering of people in developing countries. Those are all impressive accomplishments, but it’s what Victor continues to overcome in pursuit of his goals that catches peoples’ attention.
As a boy growing up in Nigeria, Victor developed benign tumors growing on the top and right sides of his face. His mother took him to hospitals throughout Nigeria seeking medical treatment for neurofibromatosis, but none had the facilities or expertise to treat him.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the day,” Victor said, “I went to a large teaching hospital in Nigeria and the doctor touched my face and told me there was nothing they could do. I cried and begged him to do something; I was so tired of the humiliation.”
Without surgery, the facial tumors continued to grow unchecked leaving him with a severe facial deformity. Victor said as uncomfortable as the tumors were, the teasing and ostracism by other children was more painful. In 2001, a missionary nun in Nigeria who ran a center for the mentally and physically challenged arranged for Victor to work with a Southfield, Mich. plastic surgeon who agreed to operate on him for free.
At age 15, Victor left his family and his small village in eastern Nigeria and came to Michigan. Eleven years and nine major surgeries later, he hasn’t seen his family since. He lives with nuns in Oak Park, Mich., and a man that he met through the sisters and that he views as a father figure, Jerry Burns, paid his Wayne State University tuition.
Despite the painful surgeries and separation from family, Victor views his tumor as a gift. “I truly feel blessed, I feel like a new person,” Victor said. “If it weren’t for the tumor I would never have come here and have all of these opportunities. I feel so blessed to be here, my professors and classmates, everyone is so nice.”
That attitude is why Kenneth Honn, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor of Pathology in the WSU School of Medicine, nominated Victor Chukwueke as a commencement speaker after getting to know him as a volunteer in the Honn cancer research laboratory. A line from his nomination letter reads, “Victor has braved situations and challenges that would humble many and that could have instilled self-doubt or insecurity. However, he created goals for his personal and academic life that he has systematically achieved with self-possession beyond his years.”
Stephanie Tucker, Ph.D., a research associate in the Department of Pathology who supervised Victor in the lab said he embodies the characteristics of the ideal student. “If something in the lab doesn’t go just right, Victor goes out of his way to follow up on it and assure us that it will get done correctly,” Dr. Tucker said. “It’s a point of personal pride for him.”
Dr. Honn added, “I have never in my life met someone with more of a positive attitude than Victor. He’s a jovial guy with a great sense of humor. He is to be admired.”
James Rigby, Ph.D., chair of the WSU Department of Chemistry, said his department is proud that Victor will represent it at commencement. “He is an extremely impressive guy,” Dr. Rigby said. “He has overcome every obstacle to become a first-rate young chemist who will go on to medical school.”
In fact, achieving ones goals was the theme of Victor’s commencement remarks, “I will share with my fellow graduates that any thing is possible if you’re willing to work hard for it. No obstacle is too hard to overcome.”