Jaha Dukureh speaking to reporters after the College of Public Administration pre-graduation ceremony, Photo by Caroline Jackson

She’s a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, United Nations goodwill ambassador, activist against female genital mutilation and now University of Central Florida Graduate.

Jaha Dukureh, a 28-year-old born in Gambia, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her non-profit work to end female genital mutilation. Dukureh started Safe Hands For Girls, a non-profit organization that aims to end FGM and other forms of violence against women, was named one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ in 2016 and her activism helped end FGM in Gambia, effectively banning the practice.

A year ago, she decided to pursue a Masters degree, and choose UCF’s online program for nonprofit management – which would allow her to attend school while traveling for her advocacy work.

On Saturday, she was invited as a special speaker for a pre-graduation ceremony for the College of Public Administration. In the ceremony, students graduating were “hooded,” and given a certificate. When Dukureh was introduced to the stage, families and guests in attendance gave her a rousing standing ovation.

At the podium, Dukureh took a moment to compose herself, admitting she was feeling emotional.

“I come from a community where girls are not allowed to go to school,” Dukureh said. “And no one in my family before me graduated high school.”

Dukureh cited her struggles in life – including being forced into marriage at 15-years-old and undergoing FGM herself as a week-old infant, and that millions of other girls face the same problems she did. However, a lot of them did not get the opportunities she had been given, she said.

“[Me] standing in front of you today, shows we need to invest in young girls, and we need to help – these issues are not African issues, but world issues and they’re women’s rights issues,” Dukureh said.

She thanked the staff at UCF for understanding her unique situation, as well as her fellow students, many of which she had been in groups with during her classes. She said that she often completed assignments in airports or in villages with no access to internet or electricity.

“Everyone worked together to help make this a reality, and today I stand here… not as someone who the world has considered has achieved something, but as one of the students who has worked hard with an amazing school that allowed her to do that regardless of where she is in the world,” Dukureh said.

In her time at UCF, Dukureh said the skills she learned will help her effectively run her organization.

“As I was learning, I was applying [the lessons] to my NGO (non-governmental organization) so it didn’t feel I was learning it, it just felt like It was something I needed to [do],” She said.

Finishing the degree while running an organization, as well has a having a family, was no easy task for Dukureh. She said she often completed her schoolwork while everyone was asleep, staying up late at night to finish assignments.

She admitted she didn’t tell anyone in her family she was attending school while running her nonprofit – simply because they would have thought she was crazy for taking on such a workload. She told them she was graduating the day before.

“When they asked how I did it, I told them, ‘I don’t know how I did it,’ “ Dukureh said.

She asked for a picture in her cap and gown, holding her certificate – proof to her family she was actually graduating.

Dukureh has three children – two sons, aged nine and four, and a daughter, aged eight. When asked whether she hopes they’ll go to college as well, she said jokingly that she’ll force them to go.

“I think it’s an expectation in our house,” Dukureh said. “You have to aspire to go to college.”

She also hopes that her kids can grow up in world where they are not discriminated against for their agendas, Dukureh said.

“I don’t want my daughter to be forced into certain situations because she’s a woman, I don’t want her to be limited because she’s a woman,” Dukureh said. “And I don’t want my sons to grow up in a world where being male doesn’t define how tough you are. I want my sons to understand how the world works and respect women.”

She wants them to learn a sense of equality, and that through her work, she teaches her children that all people are created equal, she said.

“Hopefully by seeing they have a mom who [teaches equality] they can learn from that, and do their own share,” she said.

While she does have long-term goals for her nonprofit and activism against FGM, she has new a short-term goal now that she’s graduated:

“Sleep,” Dukureh said with a laugh. “I want to go home and sleep.”