The defining characteristics of Barakaeli “Baraka” Lawuo’s route from Tanzania to Virginia Tech are resilience, academic excellence, and a deep sense of gratitude. His parents, who raised him and his siblings in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, had limited means but ample love and support to shower on their children. From his father, he learned discipline. From his mother, patience.

“I saw the sacrifices they made for us,” Lawuo said, “and their constant encouragement drove my academic aspirations early on.”

Lawuo did exceptionally well in primary school, and in 2020, he was accepted into the African Leadership Academy, a prestigious school in South Africa. The school was extremely competitive, and Lawuo experienced his first bout of self-doubt. Used to being the best and the brightest, he was suddenly among others who had been the best and brightest themselves.

"Instead of pushing to stand out right away,” he said, “I waited — and took one step at a time. I listened to my peers so I could learn from them and collaborate. I found strength in a quote by the dean of the academy, Hatim Eltayeb: ‘You deserve to be here, and here deserves you to be.’”

It wasn’t long before Lawuo excelled academically once again, thriving in this diverse and challenging environment with a new perspective on accomplishing goals via teamwork. He also had mentors who believed in him.

The African Leadership Academy emphasized critical inquiry and experiential learning. Its students worked in teams to create businesses that existed within the school’s ecosystem. Lawuo and his team took over an innovative auditing firm, and Lawuo led business operations and marketing for the organization, receiving the academy’s “Unsung Hero: Global Citizen Award" in 2022.

“I co-ran the business while in school and I took on the marketing duties  because I wanted to challenge myself outside my normal tech field,” said Lawuo, who at Virginia Tech is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, majoring in networking and cybersecurity with a minor in entrepreneurship – new venture growth. “I also participated in the Model African Union, and these experiences sparked my enthusiasm to start a company in Tanzania.”

A new path abroad — thanks to the Cranwell Family

The Cranwell family has generously supported international education and global connections at Virginia Tech for many years.

The Cranwell family's long connection to the center began with the Cranwell brothers attending Virginia Tech in the late 1950s. When Bill Cranwell ’57 learned of the death of an international student during a winter break, he was moved to imagine a campus environment for international students that felt more like a home away from home. This began a lifelong dedication to the international student population at Virginia Tech.

"Our family wants international students to know how valued they are by the entire Hokie community," Cranwell said in a 2021 interview. "Their contributions to Virginia Tech help make our university and the Southwest Virginia region the special place that it is. These gifts represent our family's promise to international students that the university is committed to building a welcoming community where they can thrive."

Lawuo is the first recipient of a scholarship the Cranwell family endowed in 2021.

“Having the opportunity to see the scholarship move from being just a piece of paper to an actual person has been such a joy for us,” Cranwell and his wife, Ellen, said in a statement. “After meeting Baraka, spending time with him, and getting to know him over the past several months, our belief in the value of international students and our commitment to supporting them is stronger than ever. We are so impressed with Baraka and look forward to seeing him continue to thrive at Virginia Tech.”

Juan Espinoza helped connect Lawuo to Virginia Tech after making the African Leadership Academy aware of the Cranwell’s scholarship.

“Barakaeli’s application stood out to us right away,” said Espinoza, who serves as associate vice president and director of undergraduate admissions and in January will become interim vice provost for enrollment management. “His background was exceptional, and when we spoke to him via Zoom after selecting him as a finalist, we were so impressed by his intellect, his desire to succeed, and his ambition to give back to the world. We were delighted to make a Virginia Tech education possible for him.”

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Finding his way at Virginia Tech

Africa has the youngest population of any continent with 60 percent of residents under the age of 25 — that percentage rises to 70 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations, the continent’s opportunities for economic growth and global sustainability are vitally linked to education. That dynamic factored into how the Cranwell Scholarship for international students was structured. 

“We look forward to seeing the scholarship contribute to the diversity of the international student population at Virginia Tech by providing support specifically for students from the African continent,” the Cranwell family said. “We are grateful for the university’s ongoing stewardship of the scholarship through the Cranwell International Center.”

The Cranwell International Center at Virginia Tech was created after the namesake family donated its home to the university in 1986. For decades, the center has served as a nexus on campus for students to connect.

For Lawuo, moving to America was exciting but daunting, and he sought advice from his friends at home.

“They told me, ‘Find your people,’” he said.

He initially wondered who those people were, and where to find them. Fortunately, Lawuo found solace, camaraderie “and my people” through the programs and services of the Cranwell International Center, including Virginia Tech's international living learning community, Mozaiko.

Surrounded by peers from varied backgrounds, Lawuo discovered a sense of belonging that transcends borders. Connections forged through shared experiences and mutual support have become an integral part of his college journey.

To exercise his marketing muscle, he also joined PRISM, an interdisciplinary ad agency run by Virginia Tech student advertisers.

“I found my home at Mozaiko — and my family at PRISM,” Lawuo said with a smile.

PRISM allows Lawuo to hone his marketing skills
PRISM allows Baraka Lawuo to hone his marketing skills.

Mom’s cooking

While Lawuo embraces his new life in the United States, there's a part of Tanzania that remains close to his heart — the taste of his mother's cooking.

“When I’m home,” he said, “about 95 percent of what I eat is made by my mom.” The tastes and aromas of traditional Tanzanian dishes, the warmth of family gatherings, and the echoes of his family’s laughter — these are the memories that anchor him and remind him of the love and support that fuel his journey.

Over winter break, Lawuo will travel home to Tanzania to see his extended family for the first time in a year and a half, so he'll be savoring his mother’s cooking very soon.

The path forward

When asked what advice he’d give to fellow Virginia Tech students, Lawuo recommends they be patient, persevere, and be open to trying new things. He also urges his peers to reach out and ask for help when needed.

As Lawuo progresses through his studies at Virginia Tech, running or playing soccer during his off hours, he understands keenly the opportunities presented by the Cranwell scholarship. Lawuo’s story is not just one of personal triumph, it's a narrative of the transformative power of education and the extraordinary prospects offered through scholarships.

His dream is to give back to his community and his country and honor the Cranwell family’s example by making a meaningful impact on the world.

“I want to start or join an enterprise that employs 10 million people in Africa,” he said, “ideally in the agriculture space, keeping young people employed and off the streets while making sure that we have enough food to feed the world.”

Lawuo added: “What the Cranwell family did for me with this scholarship means the world to me, to my family, and to my community. I pledge to the Cranwell family that I will make the most of it. I will make them proud and make the world better in a significant way. My gratitude is boundless.”

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