Grace Mukupa was an unwanted child who grew up in Africa without shoes, electricity, or much love. Her mother gave her away at birth, and she shuffled among relatives who made her work as a maid.
Now she's shaking up the UB community with the tenacity she learned from scrubbing floors, bouncing among family, and ping-ponging between continents for two decades.
Since her installment as President of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) last year, the GSA has done a 180, according to graduate student and student-professor Nuning Purwaningrum.
"She was very active, bringing new ideas," Purwaningrum said. "When Grace came, we had everything change. It was more fun for the students. As a student in the department, everything has become more exciting. She just brings something."
Yen Enabled Ph.D. students to get up to $500 dollars for conferences and Master's students to get up to $300.
Yen Expanded the Mark Diamond Research Foundation (MDRF), which gives grants to graduate students for research expenses, to include humanities.
Yen Created new paid jobs for GSA students.
Yen Extended a free coffee and doughnuts program to South Campus.
And she's only just begun.
"The big thing facing UB is the financial crisis," Mukupa said. "The economy is bad; tuition and other miscellaneous fees are rising from left to right. Students are confused and it becomes a burden beyond education. Some students have given up and others are collecting debt that they do not know who will pay back because the job market is not promising. We can solve this problem if UB works together as one family with faculty, students, and staff to find ways to alleviant the finical burden. One example is to work with the alumni relations office to help graduating students find jobs, both local and abroad."
Those who know her insist she is fearless. The 28-year-old global gender studies student works a 19-hour day, sleeps three hours and has little time or interest in relaxation, partying, or "me time." All her life, she's set goals and then achieved them.
She's not afraid to fail.
As Mukupa sees it, it's easy to risk everything when you've grown up with nothing.
Maid to Succeed
Mukupa grew up in the small village of Mwanamungule in Mumbwe, which is one mile away from the capital, Lusaka, of Southern Africa. Her mother couldn't bear the shame of raising a child without a husband (it was considered a huge disgrace in their village), so she passed her infant to her mother, father, and siblings to raise. She then moved to the city and got a job in the Zambian government.
The family had little money, so Mukupa worked as their maid.
"They wouldn't pay you, but you'd get a shirt instead of having to walk around with a ripped shirt," Mukupa said. "So that was more of a pay-off, getting to eat food like rice."
Even as she got down and dirty doing maid work, she dreamed of a better life in another country.
She said her motivation was to get out of the environment that was going to bring her down. She wanted to be: "the light that shined and gave [her] family money."
While Mukupa's story is shocking, she doesn't want people to treat her differently or sympathize because of her upbringing.
"Everyone has their story," Mukupa said. "I've gone through stuff, but I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me."
Her mother visited once or twice a year and brought gifts of soap and sugar.
Mukupa was one of seven children when she stayed with her grandparents. Her grandfather showed his trust by letting Mukupa hold onto his mail. He saw her as just and honest, and the distinction meant the world to Mukupa.
The American Dream Takes Root
When Mukupa reached middle school, her mother became a diplomat for the Zambian government and was sent to Tokyo, Japan. She took 12-year-old Mukupa with her.
"I never had a chance to question the past," Mukupa said. "I just went along living life and kept everything inside."
Mukupa, whisked into the unknown, then attended the International School of the Sacred Heart, a private school paid for by the Zambian government.
While in Tokyo, Mukupa learned both English and Japanese at school, but still spoke her African dialect at home. When her English got good enough, she joined the school newspaper and the choir.
Still, as a native African, she stood out and some discriminated against her.
"My mom sent me to get change somewhere close to my house, but the guy said he had no change," Mukupa said. "So I was looking around the shop to buy something, and the guy behind me asked for change and the cashier did not hesitate to give him. He looked right in my face and did not feel any shame."
While in school, U.S. college recruiters came to her high school and spoke of the value of an American education.
Her fire was amplified. Her drive was heightened. She wanted schooling. That was how she could make money to support her friends and family in Africa.
When Mukupa finished high school, her mother was relocated to Belgium and she had to uproot again.
She began trying to get to the U.S., but she had no money.
She applied for fellowships, scholarships, and anything else she could think of. Finally, in a plea of desperation, she decided to write a letter to her former high school and ask for help.
The school was hesitant at first, wondering if they could be sure it was Mukupa writing to them. She told them she needed help to get to America, and she'd get to work as soon as she got there. She'd find a way to support herself and wouldn't ask for any more help. She brought up all her activities from high school (newspaper, choir) and they immediately recognized Mukupa's tone and work ethic, so the school paid for her ticket to America. She hastily filled out the necessary paperwork and the adventure began.
With $60 in her pocket, Mukupa arrived in the U.S. to attend Sacred Heart University, a school connected with her high school. As soon as she reached the States, she spent 27 of those dollars on an airport shuttle.
She got to school and asked administrators to find her a place to live, and Sacred Heart took care of her from there. As soon as she had money from working, she sent $100 dollars to her uncle. She still sends money back home to her family, and also supports three students by paying for their schooling.
Mukupa eventually transferred to Southern Connecticut State University where she earned her bachelor's degree in political science and journalism. She didn't have a place to go on the holidays, but some of her friends took her in. One friend had a grandmother who would knit blankets for Mukupa, who wasn't accustomed to the cold weather.
"I survived because of the friends I had," Mukupa said. "Even though I had nothing to give them, I gave them my trust and loyalty."
During her time at SCSU, Mukupa learned that her mother was ill. During her sophomore year, she heard the devastating news: her mother had died. She considered going home to be with her family, but the more she thought about it, the more she decided that she wanted to define her own life.
"I wanted to create a legacy of my own," Mukupa said. "I wanted to have kids of my own. My motivation was my mother's death. I didn't want to disappoint her."
Bianca Madongorere, one of Mukupa's closest friends, says she is always stunned by Mukupa's determination.
"[Mukupa] is very driven," Madongorere said. "Sometimes there are people with that characteristic: whatever hurdles come into their lives, they're able to accomplish them. I'm not surprised that she is where she is, simply because of her perseverance."
After she graduated from SCSU, Mukupa wanted to keep going with her education. After researching schools, she decided to attend SUNY Oswego for her Master of Business Administration (MBA). Mukupa had gotten involved in student government as an undergrad, but her government career really developed at Oswego.
She was selected as student involvement coordinator, and was responsible for directing and advising 20 Greek organizations. It was at Oswego that she met a couple of friends who would save her in Buffalo.
Homeless in Buffalo
Mukupa is just about finished with her Ph.D. in global gender studies at UB, but she had nothing figured out when she arrived in Buffalo in Sept. 2009. She didn't even have a place to stay.
She saved up some money working at Oswego - between there and SCSU, she says she worked "every job you could think of," from dining halls to gyms - but she used that money to pay off her education. She asked if she could stay in the classrooms.
"I didn't want to give up," Mukupa said. "After paying all my tuition, I said: 'I'll stay outside.' But she told me to come live with her."
"She" is JoAnn Peterson, the mother of two of Grace's friends at Oswego. Peterson, an elderly Williamsville resident, took Mukupa in and she's been there ever since.
"Our culture and background is totally, totally different," Peterson said. "She's ambitious and anything that she can achieve, she's open for it. She can go as far as she really pushes herself and has this drive to do it."
Outside the Office
Mukupa has a hectic schedule that starts with a 6 a.m. workout, includes tutoring high school students, advising undergrads, working at the GSA, studying, and teaching. She often is up until 3 a.m. answering emails.
"People ask me if I sleep," Mukupa said. "People always see me in the office around 7 a.m. and they're like: 'Did you just send me this email?'"
She doesn't mind working around the clock. She said she feels that her world will stop if she sleeps for too long, and she wants to make an impact in the time she's given. That's why she got involved in student government.
"I wanted to make sure I did my job and did something for other people," Mukupa said.
Mukupa plans on working within the U.S. government to formulate programs for youth, and she wants to help the fight against HIV/AIDS in developing countries. She has applied to work on an extremely competitive program in the Republic of Tajikistan, but hasn't heard back yet.
Just how far can she go?
"She is inspirational," Purwaningrum said. "She can go so far because she's willing to work so hard. She can go further than you think. I always mention to her: 'In the future, I will see you on the news.'"