From Tanzania to EARTH: Cornel’s courageous journey

Filed Under: EARTH Stories
Date: January 30th, 2020

On January 13, EARTH’s 2020 academic year commenced. The 113 new first-year students – not unlike those of other cohorts or our 2,443 alumni – arrived at campus full of stories. What follows is one of them.

More than 13,300 kilometers separate EARTH University’s Guácimo Campus and the eastern African city of Arusha. However, it was so much more than distance that stood between Mastercard Foundation Scholar Cornel Michael Dominic (’23, Tanzania) and his dream in a different hemisphere.

Portrait of Cornel Michael Dominic while he was working in the botanic garden.

Portrait of Cornel Michael Dominic while he was working in the botanic garden.

Cornel, 23, was not admitted the first time he applied to the University. He faced an uncertain future. But he knew that, no matter what, he needed to keep pushing forward – as he had done in his past, through far-more-arduous adversities.

Cornel has experienced life’s extremes – from devastating poverty and illness to fantastic generosity and perseverance. His deep, dark eyes have witnessed the world at its most hostile as well as its most compassionate.

At 13, he left his childhood home, thinking his absence might ease his family’s hardships. He became itinerant – sometimes sleeping at his beloved grandmother’s, sometimes with unkind relatives, sometimes on the streets. Oftentimes on the streets. Although he had finished primary school, continuing with his studies did not seem to be a viable option. He lacked the necessary resources. Only a child, he had to learn how to earn a living on his own.

Cornel with his classmates and Professor Annie Tremblay.

Cornel with his classmates and Professor Annie Tremblay.

Type Tanzania into a search engine, and you will be presented with photographs of towering giraffes and brawny elephants, the majesty of Mount Kilimanjaro and the intense blues of Zanzibar. In spite of its natural wonders, the country is one of the world’s poorest in human development. Of its 56 million residents, more than 13 million live in poverty and, of the employed, 80 percent work in agriculture.

Cornel desired to attend to EARTH to prepare himself as an agronomist for that reason; he understands the needs of his country and dreams of being able to find solutions to many of the problems that his fellow citizens live on a daily basis.

However, getting to Costa Rica was no simple feat. Securing the funds to finish secondary school was a challenge. Fortunately, while kicking around a soccer ball in a plaza as a teen, Cornel found help. “I loved to play, but I also loved to learn. I would teach myself about any subject I could – always thinking that if I didn’t have opportunities, I would have to teach myself. That day, I met people from the Watoto Foundation. They came to the square and asked me about my age, what I liked to do, if I liked to study. I said yes!”

Cornel became part of the Watoto Foundation, an organization that supports street children by granting them access to vocational education and dignified jobs as electricians, carpenters, farmers, builders, and more. He routinely received the highest marks of any student on exams. At the end of training, his teachers encouraged him to continue studying and earn his high school diploma. With the help of countless people, Cornel finished his preparatory education.

Cornel playing music with his classmates.

Cornel playing music with his classmates.

The second time he applied to EARTH University, Cornel had been seeking employment in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. Soon after arrival, he contracted malaria, which rendered him unable to work. He knew it was time to seek other opportunities, to re-apply to EARTH. Fatigued and penniless, he boarded a bus to Arusha, where admissions interviews were being held, and begged for help in paying for the fare. During the 10-hour trip, he alternated between restless sleep and sipping salty water in an attempt to control the effects of his sickness.

Then, the bus entered the city, his hometown. Somehow, Cornel managed to pull himself up and get off. Having carried himself to his mother’s house, he donned his best shirt and cleanest shoes, and he participated in EARTH’s admissions process.

In the evening hours many weeks later, Cornel was still recovering from the illness when news arrived. Admitted! He summoned unknown strength, sprang from bed, and jumped with joy. He was eager to share the news with his grandmother, the person who had most supported him and believed in him. He recognized how life would change thanks to this news, this golden opportunity. He saw how he could finally become the breadwinner for his younger siblings. He saw how he could usher positive change into his community and country. He saw everything clearly and realized that every effort and struggle had been worthwhile.

Working in the Botanic Garden.

Working in the Botanic Garden.

He recounts his story with warm laughter, triumphant.

“I am happy to be at EARTH. I know that I can do many great things by being here. I want to help street kids, those who don’t have access to education and people who are suffering. Thanks to the Mastercard Foundation scholarship and the help that many others have given me, I was able to get off the streets and start studying at a prestigious university. Many of the people who have helped me, I have never met in my life. I want to be that help for others.”

The journey has not been easy. Cornel’s grandmother died September 4 – the very day Cornel was set to relocate to Costa Rica, to start learning Spanish and begin his studies at EARTH.

Class of 2023

Class of 2023.

He changes the subject and recites some words in Swahili, his mother tongue. He explains that mambo means “hello”, poa means “good”, and hakuna matata means “no problems, everything will be fine”. He smiles again.

Cornel – rich in history, perseverance, and courage – is the kind of ethical leader that we at EARTH University believe will change the world.


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