UNCP graduate student finds strength after family tragedy

Paula Mukau and her brother, Sam, at his graduation ceremony at UNCP in 2021
Paula Mukau and her brother, Sam, at his graduation ceremony at UNCP in 2021

Paula Mukau gently stroked the heart-shaped tattoo permanently inked across her lower forearm, which reads ‘forever in my heart’ followed by ‘February 20, 2022.’ A constant reminder of the day Sam––her younger brother and the glue that held their family together––lost his battle with cancer. 


Mukau was preparing for mid-term exams in the graduate program at UNC Pembroke when she received the fateful call from her father. Dark times would lay ahead for the Raleigh native. Overcome with grief and heartbreak, her grades plummeted. She struggled to maintain focus and considered withdrawing from school.


“I was ready to give up,” Mukau said. “I was ready to throw in the towel. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’”


Finding a way to move forward felt nearly impossible. But Mukau’s Christian faith, Sam’s spirit and the support she received from the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) team at UNCP helped her achieve her dream. 


This weekend, Mukau joins more than 1,000 graduates at Spring Commencement as they turn their tassels, symbolizing the completion of their academic journey. 


“I know there will be a lot of tears, but they will be tears of joy,” Mukau said. “There were a lot of obstacles along the way, but one thing I am thankful for is that my experience has shaped me into the strong woman I am today.”


Mukau didn’t speak English when her family migrated to Raleigh, N.C., from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, when she was eight. On Friday, Mukau, who today speaks three languages, will earn a Master of Social Work degree at The Graduate School outdoor ceremony. At the time of his diagnosis in January 2019, Sam Mukau was working on his MBA at UNCP.


“This man was sick, lying in the hospital and took his final exams in his hospital bed,” Paula Mukau said. “Whenever I thought about giving up, I thought about my brother. If he could do that––I have no excuses.”


A huge smile crept across her face as she recalled how her brother––proudly draped in a custom stole identical to the Democratic Republic of Congo flag––appeared on his graduation day on December 10, 2021. He blew a kiss to loved ones from the Givens Performing Arts Center stage before receiving his academic hood.


“I used to cry when talking about my brother––but now I smile. It brings me joy to talk about his accomplishments and how he has impacted my life and inspired me.”


She credits the CAPS support system with helping her navigate a dark period of her life and prioritizing her mental health while shifting her academic focus.


“I’m so thankful I had people around me to encourage me,” she said. “They would say, ‘You came so far and worked so hard; you can’t give all that up.’” They were there to support me. I didn’t have to go through it alone.”


During her final year at UNCP, Mukau used her experience with grief to empower others as a CAPS student intern. After graduation, she plans to become a licensed clinical social worker and one day own a private practice. 


“This is my journey. I’m so happy that I didn’t give up. I must keep going because (Sam) wouldn’t want me to stop. I want to use my experience to bring hope to others.”