Dream deferred for 40 years coming true
by Luanne Williams

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks poet Langston Hughes. Wingate University student Prudentia Ngwainmbi knows one thing: her dream to become a pharmacist, deferred for nearly four decades, didn’t “dry up like a raisin in the sun.”

“I had this unfulfilled thing in me,” says Ngwainmbi, 52, a wife, mother of two and native of Cameroon. “It kept haunting me. I always dreamed about pharmacy.” On Friday, that dream becomes a reality, as she will graduate with her doctor of pharmacy degree.

Captivated by the sciences, especially chemistry, as a middle schooler, Ngwainmbi said she didn’t want to leave her younger sisters to travel outside of Cameroon to pharmacy school, so instead she turned her attention to English and literature. Later, when she did leave Africa to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she was tempted by science but decided to stay with language and earned her master’s in human communication studies in 1996. Then came marriage, a son and some medical issues that kept her out of the workforce for a couple of years.

In 2000, she took a post at Elizabeth City State University working to help low-income high school students find their path to college. She also worked with the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation supporting historically underrepresented students in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

“While I was at ECSU, I liked my work, but I still had this feeling that I wasn’t doing the right thing for me,” Ngwainmbi says. “That’s where I finally had this ‘aha’ moment that I needed to go ahead and really do this.” She got an employee fee waiver and enrolled in some pharmacy pre-requisite science courses, finding herself side-by-side with some of the students she had helped get into college.

“In a way that was a good thing,” she says. “Having been someone who was always encouraging them, it made me know I had to be a perfect example. I hoped that them seeing me and knowing that I was taking a new path would be inspiring to them.”

Fascinated by equations and mixtures, she leaned on what she had learned years before in Cameroon to help her through college-level chemistry.

“I had to have a tutor, but I did really well,” Ngwainmbi says. “When you have a passion for something, and are interested in it, that drive, that curiosity makes you do well.” On the advice of her niece, who works for Johns Hopkins University, she also started studying the 200 most prescribed medications, memorizing their brand names, generic names and classifications.

“I wouldn’t advise anybody to go to pharmacy school at my age,” she says with a smile. “But I knew the purpose of why I came and what it took. I knew I had to focus.”

A family move

When Ngwainmbi first went back to school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had a satellite pharmacy program at ECSU. But by the time she was ready to apply, the program had been shut down, so pursuing her dream meant she would have to uproot her family. At the time, her husband was working for the African Development Bank in Tunisia.

“I applied to Wingate in 2013, got the letter to come interview, got accepted in January 2014 and just fell in love with the staff here,” Ngwainmbi says. She and her children – 15-year-old Jim and 9-year-old Miriam – moved to Matthews so she could make the commute to the Levine College of Health Sciences.

Prudentia and Miriam

“I missed my friends from school, but I knew it was important for my mom to do this,” says Miriam, now 14 and a rising freshman at Cuthbertson High School. “I was happy if she was happy.”

Ngwainmbi says the move put more responsibility on both her children. Jim, now 20, is a student at UNCC. Miriam started doing the laundry at age 10, and the three worked together to keep the household functioning.

“Sometimes you have to make decisions and live in faith. It has not been easy not being employed and being in school, but things have come along and helped us through the whole process. Having faith day by day has helped us through this,” Ngwainmbi says. “It was quite a struggle and I have had some setbacks, but the staff of the pharmacy school has been there to support me.”

A calculations class and one on the cardiovascular system – during which she was, coincidentally, diagnosed with hypertension – gave her the most trouble and led her to modify her schedule and take an extra year to complete the degree.

“You have to respond to your body and what is realistic to do to graduate. I made that adaptation,” Ngwainmbi says. “The pharmacy program has a good way of reaching out to make sure you have the assistance you need. They are there to help you through.”

She rattles off names of administrators and faculty members who were especially supportive: Dr. Michael Neville, Dr. Carolyn Ford, Dr. Wesley Haltom.

“I could walk in and talk to them and they would tell me objectively how things should be. I have had that connection with them. I could come to them when I needed help and know they would be there for me,” she says. “Dean (Robert) Supernaw too. When I had issues, I’d go to his office and talk to him and cry when I had to cry.”

After five years in steady pursuit of her dream, she says Commencement may bring a few more tears.

“I don’t know what to think or how to feel. I know I am going to be overwhelmed,” Ngwainmbi says. “I may walk across the stage crying.”

May 10, 2019

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