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From Africa to California: a past President’s Medalist’s odyssey

Coming from a tiny island off the coast of Africa, Amadeu daSilva was lucky to come away with a high school education. Now, after earning his doctorate from prestigious Columbia University in New York, he is passing on his gift of education to students at California State University, Fullerton.

Winning the 1999 President’s Medal from Fresno State was only the beginning for the São Tomé and Principe native. Leaving his “broken, non-traditional” home of more than 13, daSilva seized the opportunity to pursue an education in America.

“There are no real universities in my country,” he said. “But that’s the only way out of the country.”

Though he received word that he earned a scholarship to come to the U.S., nothing was guaranteed. Often times, students never see a penny of their educational awards.

“It took time for me to actually get my scholarship before I came to the U.S. The system is very, very corrupt,” he said.

Before stepping foot on the Fresno State campus, daSilva spent a year in Iowa in an English-as-a-second-language program.

“I just knew a few words here and there, but not enough to carry on a conversation,” he said.

Unfamiliar with the many universities in the U.S., he did not indicate a preference of which school to attend. Ultimately, his scholarship came in for Fresno State.

“Coming to Fresno was quite okay with me,” he said. Pleased to leave the cold, bitter weather in Iowa, he looked forward to Fresno’s warmth. “That was enough for me, to be honest,” he said with a laugh.

With the international programs at Fresno State and a game or two of soccer, daSilva adjusted well to life in the Valley. Though not much of a social butterfly, he stood out as one of the brightest minds in the classroom.

Sasan Fayazmanesh, Ph. D., his former economics professor, remembered daSilva for his timid nature and talent with numbers.

“He was a brilliant student. Yet he was very modest and unassuming,” she said.

Fayazmanesh, one of daSilva’s strongest supporters to win the Dean’s Medal in 1999, offered written support on his behalf.

“From the very start, Amadeu showed extraordinary intellectual promise, as well as the ability to pursue hard work,” she wrote in her letter of recommendation. “He is, without question, one of the finest students that I have seen in my many years of teaching.”

In his early years at Fresno State, daSilva pleasantly surprised Fayazmanesh when he completed her list of suggested readings and was the only student in the class to solve a complicated algebraic problem.

“In that class, Amadeu went on to surprise me again and again by receiving perfect scores on each and every test,” Fayazmanesh said.

Always the good student, daSilva did not find school difficult. He credits much of his success to his former faculty adviser, John Shaw, Ph. D., who was more like a friend and mentor. Still, he felt the pressure to perform well, thinking of those back home who dared not dream of a college education.

“I wanted to do well for all the people that didn’t get to come,” he said.

Without knowing he was even nominated, daSilva earned the Dean’s Medal for the College of Social Sciences. Though his grades were good, he doubted it was enough to win.

The shy student gave a speech in front of the student body. He was now in the running to earn the coveted President’s Medal. Due to the fierce competition, he felt doubt once again that he could win. But when university President John D. Welty announced his name in front of his graduating class, the moment seemed unreal.

“He opens the envelope and says ‘Amadeu daSilva,’” he recalled. “It felt like a blur.”

It was then that he was to address his graduating class. In that blur with nothing prepared, daSilva managed to find the words to deliver another speech.

“I’m just amazed that I was able to do that,” he said.

He graduated Fresno State in four years with degrees in both economics and mathematics.

After closing the first successful chapter of his education, the horizon seemed endless for daSilva. But his J-1 Visa that brought him to the U.S. was now calling him home.

“With the J-1 Visa, you can’t work; you just go to school,” daSilva said. “When you get your degree, you have to go back home for at least two years.”

This proved quite problematic for daSilva, as he had just received word that he earned a full scholarship to Columbia University. Waiting there for him in New York was his now-wife, another Fresno State Dean’s Medalist, Ermira Farka.

Upset by the thought of turning down such an amazing educational opportunity and having to leave his wife’s side, daSilva flew back to São Tomé and Principe to petition for his stay in America.

“It was very, very stressful,” he said of those six weeks. daSilva had to petition to the prime minister of his country, hoping he would offer his support let him stay.

“He listened to me, and my scholarship to Columbia was unique enough for me to stay,” daSilva said. He said he only knew of two other people from his country to ever earn their doctorate.

With Farka by his side, the two earned their doctorate degrees from Columbia and returned to California. The pair now teach full time at California State University, Fullerton.

Though he may be best remembered for his journey from Africa to prestigious Columbia University, daSilva holds on to his memories of Fresno State.

“I identify myself more with Fresno State than Columbia,” he said, shrugging off his ‘Ivy-leaguer’ nickname. “Fresno was my beginning.”