Paul Massawe’s ‘mission impossible’ life is a story of perseverance
The Pharm.D. student’s path from a small village near Mount Kilimanjaro to a doctoral program at VCU proves no dream is too big.
By Julie Dillon
Paul Massawe is on a mission. Given the near constant obstacles he has encountered in life, it would be easy to assume that mission is impossible. But a combination of personal conviction, faith and individual generosity have Massawe, a second-year student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy, closer to achieving his goals than ever.
Massawe grew up in Moshi, Tanzania, a small village near Mount Kilimanjaro. Though the village had no running water or electricity and food was scarce, his mother taught him to rely on faith and perseverance during times of uncertainty. Determined that her son would receive a good education, she secured his admittance to a private school operated by a Christian missionary organization that matched students with American sponsors who covered the cost of their education. The school’s emphasis on community service and its missionary leadership were highly influential and helped pave the way for Massawe’s remarkable journey to VCU.
At an early age, he worked alongside volunteers in hospitals and schools. During his advanced studies (high school) years, Massawe focused his coursework on science and developed a passion for medicine. He joined the missionaries in teaching science in neighborhood schools and working in underserved areas in Tanzania, providing medical supplies and educating rural communities about disease prevention.
In Tanzania, where demand for publicly funded higher education far exceeds supply, prospective students are assigned a field of study based on scholarship and program availability. Despite his passion for medicine and science, when Massawe received his acceptance, it indicated he would study business. After Massawe shared the news with his missionary friends, they decided to financially support his education in the U.S. Massawe enrolled at Oral Roberts University in 2015 to study biomedical chemistry. Over the next four years, half his tuition was covered by scholarships, the rest by his friends, who would raise the remainder every semester.
“The friends who financially supported my education are regular people with regular jobs but have extraordinary hearts,” Massawe says.
The feeling is mutual. “Paul does not let challenges or obstacles get him down,” says Debbie Schultz, who met Massawe in 2014 and is part of his extended American “family.”
“He is a strong man who is determined to pursue his goals but also has a giving heart and is always ready to help those around him,” Schultz says. “This is why so many people are happy to support and encourage him along his journey.”
Meanwhile, back in Tanzania, a family tragedy illustrated firsthand the danger of under-resourced health care. Massawe’s teenage cousin became ill and was treated for malaria. When medication proved ineffective, doctors discovered that he had been misdiagnosed and actually had a brain tumor that had become untreatable. His death “was very painful,” Massawe says, and it sharpened Massawe’s determination.
“I decided to be part of the solution by getting my education and doing everything in my ability to be a source of hope and answers to those in need,” he says.
After graduating from Oral Roberts in 2019, Massawe, motivated to help rectify the difficulty his family experienced accessing proper medications for his cousin, applied to several pharmacy schools for graduate study. At VCU, he found a school with strong academics that was interested in his background and goals — and willing to provide financial support. “During the interview, VCU asked questions about me and really seemed to want to help me achieve my dream,” Massawe says.
Massawe had to delay his acceptance while he secured tuition funds. Once again, his network proved instrumental. To this day, Massawe manages his tuition semester by semester, relying on a combination of the Pharmacy Recruitment Scholarship from VCU, the generosity of those who believe in him and personal income.
Tanzania has a shortage of pharmacists and doctors, and it is common to hear stories like that of Massawe’s cousin — of diseases misdiagnosed, medications misprescribed and basic health care needs unmet, Massawe says. He ultimately wishes to return to Tanzania and improve health care by opening local pharmacies and clinics that address basic needs. He aims to connect students and health care professionals in America to his work in Tanzania, believing that broadening individual perspectives is the only route to lasting change.
For Massawe, the gifts received early in life — a single mother who wouldn’t give up, experience giving back to his community, friends who believed in his potential — have shaped his career and character. Eight years ago, before coming to the U.S., Massawe adopted a baby boy, Ebenezer, whom his sister helps care for in Tanzania. His family has grown in recent years; he and his wife, Cydni, married in 2020, and the couple recently welcomed a son, Gabriel.
Once he finishes his degree, Massawe says he will first work in the U.S. to gain pharmaceutical experience while relying on his faith and perseverance to make his vision a reality.
“I know my goals are big, but my life has always been a ‘mission impossible’ life,” he says. “My faith in God has always paid off, and resources have come through when I needed them. I know when the time is right, I will find a way to bring hope and light to these communities.”
– Julie Dillon is a contributing writer for the alumni magazine.