Tanatswa "T" Sambana's journey to the Chartway Arena stage, where he'll receive his Bachelor of Science in biomedical sciences, started more than 8,000 miles away in another continent.
He will be the first in his family to receive an undergraduate degree in the United States, and the lessons he's learned en route to his Old Dominion University diploma should serve him well down the road.
Originally from Zimbabwe in southeast Africa, Sambana and his family moved several times because his parents sought a better life, first to Michigan when he was 6, then to Pennsylvania when he was 13. Homesick for Africa, his parents moved the family back to Zimbabwe before settling down in South Africa.
While attending Parel Vallei High School in Cape Town, Sambana's interest in science blossomed.
"The way my teacher used to teach biology and explain it was so interesting," Sambana said.
After graduating from Parel Vallei, his family moved to Virginia. His interest in ODU was spurred by a recommendation from one of his mother's co-workers.
"After doing my research I instantaneously fell in love with ODU," Sambama said. "The diversity, the different programs, and how ODU was and is still growing made me want to come here."
Pursuing a degree in biomedical sciences with a concentration in pre-health was an easy choice. He excelled in biology in high school and earned marks of distinction.
However, he faced a big obstacle when he failed a chemistry class at ODU.
"When I had to retake the class," Sambana said, "it was eye-opening and humbling."
He asked himself, "What did I do wrong and what can I do better?" Sambana took advantage of the resources available to students, including tutors with the Math and Sciences Resources Center, and made connections with his professor. He passed with high marks the second time around.
Once Sambana realized connections would help him thrive, he set out to make more.
During his freshman year, he joined the African Student Association (ASA) and this year, he served as vice president. "It's been welcoming having the support of Africans who have common aspects and common goals," Sambana said. "It's a big melting pot of Black excellence."
The ASA is open to all ODU students. Some ASA members have lived in the United States, some are from the Caribbean and others were born overseas. Through ASA, students motivate and support each other.
"Members within the ASA either have their own businesses that they do on the side, or they are a part of other organizations where we support them," Sambana said. The camaraderie helps sustain the members, especially those who are homesick.
As a freshman, he joined TRiO Student Support Services (SSS), a retention program at ODU funded by the U.S. Department of Education. He was matched with two mentors, both biological sciences majors. With their guidance, he prospered, and the experience inspired him to serve.
"I got into SSS mentoring because of my mentors from my freshman year," Sambana said. "I became a mentor so I could give support to students who might have questions or who need guidance here at ODU."
During his freshman and sophomore years, Sambana also served as a College of Sciences Ambassador, interacting with future Monarchs and their families during tours and other events.
"It was another aspect to help me step out of my comfort zone, and it something that was offered to me," Sambana said. "It helped me develop as an individual."
The social activities that sustained his first few semesters at ODU came to a halt when the global pandemic started early in 2020.
"I missed about two years of in-person interactions on campus. I had to readjust mentally and that took some time," he said.
Once ODU fully reopened in the fall of 2021, he was ready to reengage. He was finally able to join a Black Greek panhellenic organization - Phi Beta Sigma, Fraternity, Inc.
"I've always wanted to be surrounded by men who think like me, who want to do better in the world and who provide service," he said. "All the Black Greek organizations do that, but for some reason, the men of Phi Beta Sigma stood out to me because of how the brothers carried themselves."
While juggling all his activities, Sambana also completed undergraduate research with ticks, and used gel electrophoresis to study DNA in science classes.
"'T' always arrived at class prepared and inquisitive, and he frequently asked insightful questions that stimulated discussion during class, which I appreciated greatly," said Doug Mills, senior lecturer in biological sciences. "In addition, 'T' often remained after class to discuss a variety of topics including biological processes and professional opportunities. It was a delight to work with him professionally."
Sambana also credited his academic advisor, Kerri Svoboda-Musick, for helping to guide him.
"She is the best," Sambana said. "Kerri has been guiding me about what classes to take, and she always gave me good advice, even after sending her emails at 1:30 in the morning."
"'T' Sambana is resilient and willing to put in the work," said Svoboda-Musick. "He's practical, willing to ask for help and personable. He always comes prepared with questions and potential options to weigh through pros and cons together. He was one of the ambassadors for the College of Sciences and was dependable - a student I could rely on."
Reflecting on the assistance he received at ODU, he said: "Closed mouths don't get fed. If you don't ask for help you won't get the help. There are plenty of resources at ODU, and you should take advantage of them."
After graduation, Sambana will be going to George Washington University to pursue a Master of Science in global health policy.
He credits his success to his parents.
"They have always worked hard for my siblings and me," he said. "They decided to come over to a different country for a better life, and they have provided a better life for us, and they overcame struggles, too. They instilled their hard-work ethics into me and my siblings."