Maijidda Haruna didn't have the words to explain how cold it was.

On the day she stepped outside of O'Hare International Airport — her first time on American soil, her first time outside Nigeria, her first time being more than a few dozen miles away from her village — it was zero degrees Fahrenheit.

As each breath of Midwestern winter air froze her lungs, the 18-year-old didn't feel like she was half a world away from home. She felt like she was on a different planet.

“I called my mom, and I was just trying to describe to her how cold it was, and I didn't know how to,” she said. “I was so scared — I didn't know how I would be able to manage, and I couldn't even describe the environment to them.”

Five years later, every step of the journey that began that day for Maijidda and three other Nigerian women is nearly indescribable. They came to Notre Dame that arctic morning in early 2018 after being carefully selected by their government, shepherded by senior leaders from the United Nations and the Catholic Church, and anxiously but quietly awaited by a tight circle of supporters at Notre Dame.

For a country torn apart by religious violence — with Boko Haram waging a brutal insurgency in the northeast and a communal conflict in the country's middle region that cost even more lives — and where the value of educating girls was constantly questioned, sending four young women to a Catholic university on an unfamiliar continent was a gamble, but a risk many felt was worth taking.

There were two Christians — Dinah Lawan and Godiya Simon — who had been kidnapped by Muslim terrorists as schoolgirls and endured a harrowing path back to freedom. And there were two Muslims — Maijidda Haruna and Laila Ibrahim — who had encountered devastating violence at the hands of Christians.

Dinah standing in front of the golden dome.
Dinah Lawan
Godiya standing in front of the golden dome.
Godiya Simon
Laila standing in front of the golden dome.
Laila Ibrahim
Maijidda standing in front of the golden dome.
Maijidda Haruna

They arrived with the chance to pursue an education that could transform their lives, but also, their country hoped, be an example that could help heal their homeland. Maybe, just maybe, if this quartet could go to America and thrive, they could demonstrate all that is possible when strength is built through knowledge and community is founded on forgiveness.

“The symbolism of this was breathtaking,” said Sara Sievers, a former Notre Dame faculty member who served as a host mother to all four. “They had lost all you really can, short of their own lives. But if they could learn to love one another as sisters, then anyone can.”

‘If we fail, God knows we tried’

Dinah Lawan didn't have the words to explain what was happening.

Mere hours ago, she had been lying outside her boarding school dormitory, chatting with friends, braiding hair, thinking about a chemistry exam the next day.

Then Boko Haram showed up with guns and trucks and fire.

Around 11 p.m. on that oppressively hot April night in 2014, Dinah and many of her classmates were sleeping outside — but their slumber was suddenly interrupted by shots and the shouting.

As the girls rushed back inside, chaos followed.

Who was it? Just a security guard, or maybe the military? Why were they here? What did they want?

Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, a city of about 66,000, was thought to be safe from Boko Haram — the Islamic terrorist group whose name translates to “Western education is forbidden” — which had been much more active in rural areas, such as the one Dinah called home. Some parents had called their children recently, telling them Boko Haram was on their way, that they had bombed a house nearby, that they should run. But many students who had returned to take their college placement exams stayed put, fearful of being suspended for leaving school grounds.

Suddenly, men burst into the dormitory, clad in soldiers' uniforms. They were here to rescue the girls, they said. The girls believed them. Why wouldn't they?

The scared students were gathered together as close as possible. That's when Dinah heard one shout “Allahu akbar!” Those two words sparked more confusion.

Why are these soldiers speaking Arabic? Why are their uniforms so dirty — and why did some not have shoes? Why are their flashlights so bad? This wasn't right.

The men had questions of their own. Where were the school's guards? (They had left the week prior.) Where are the school's boys? (They go home at night.) Did you hear about the attack on the school in Konduga? (Yes.)

The questions concluded with an admission: We are Boko Haram. We told you not to go to school. This is the end. You will not see your parents or your families again.

That's when the shouting and the crying started.

“From there, I just felt like I was in a different world,” Dinah said. “I couldn't feel myself. I just looked up and the sky was very far. I looked down, and I just wanted to sink into the ground. We thought that was the last moment we would ever have in this world.”

The gunmen packed up all the food they could find, forced the girls outside at gunpoint, and set fire to the school buildings. Leering, smiling at and taking videos of the girls, the members of Boko Haram marched them along a steep trail to where several vehicles were waiting. As Dinah was loaded into the back of a large truck, she placed her hand on it and said a brief, quiet prayer: “In Jesus' name.”

As the truck bounced along a dirt road, Dinah started talking to a friend next to her. She looked away briefly, and when she turned back, the girl was gone. She had jumped out of the back of the truck.

Escape had been in Dinah's mind, but now, it seemed possible — she promised herself she wouldn't sleep until an opportunity presented itself. As she looked for one, the truck stopped to search for two girls who had already escaped.

Dinah attempted to convince her best friend next to her that they should flee together. She couldn't get the vision of her future life out of her mind — a forced marriage to an older man, or being used as a tool of terrorism against people of her own faith — but her friend did not want to go. There were too many girls left, she insisted; they should stick together.

“But I already made my decision between life and death,” Dinah said. “I would rather jump out of the car, fall down and die than go with Boko Haram. I was escaping to die, because how would I survive in a life like that?”

She kept waiting for the perfect chance — and tried a couple of times, but couldn't get out. Fed up, she decided to finally go for it. A car was following close behind, but she simply couldn't wait any longer.

Dinah and another friend got up and jumped out of the truck. Four more girls followed them.

They hit the ground hard, but didn't move. They laid on their stomachs, as flat as possible. The car turned on its bright headlights, and motorcycles started circling the area quickly. Finding nothing, the drivers grew impatient and started moving farther down the road.

The six girls agreed to split up and go in separate directions. Dinah and two others made a break for the bush, sprinting into the black. A shadow — a person, perhaps? — appeared suddenly, so they changed direction. They dashed into a dark forest that was full of dangers of its own — from venomous snakes to predatory animals — but anything was better than captivity.

They kept running for an hour, stopped briefly to pray under a tree, and then ran some more. As day slowly started to break, with no idea where they were, they followed the smoke from their burning school, hoping to make it back to Chibok. At long last, around 6 a.m., they saw signs for a village with a familiar name. When they arrived, no one had heard about the kidnapping. Men there took the girls back to Chibok, where parents of the missing schoolgirls had started to gather.

There was a joyous reunion with her aunt, anxious waiting for her father's arrival, and a despondent visit to the dormitory where everything was reduced to ash. Classmates' family members flocked to Dinah, pressing for details about individual missing girls, but all she could muster was to say, “I escaped, but all of us are gone.”

Dinah's father almost fell off his motorcycle when he saw her, shaking in disbelief — an end to hours of heartbreak. They went to her aunt's house, where she ate and showered, but soon they received word they needed to return to her village. Her mother was not well and, believing her daughter to be dead, was contemplating suicide.

When Dinah returned home, her house was full of people — mourners who had arrived to bury her, or at least grieve her death. She rushed into the house and sat on her mother's lap, crying, her mother still in disbelief.

Eight years later, more than 100 of the 276 girls who were taken that night are still missing. But when Dinah finally went to sleep, her promise to herself was fulfilled. She was free.

“I wasn't hurt. I survived the escape,” she said. “God helped us, I believe.”

Godiya Simon was one of the brave ones who escaped, too. But her path back home was far longer, and far more treacherous.

After the gunshots rang out, she made a flurry of phone calls from her room — to her brother, who urged her to call her family; to her father, who told her to run; to her mother, who said her family was fleeing their village for a forest to hide from Boko Haram.

Later, as they were taken away from their school, Godiya and her cousin were put in a car in the middle of the caravan, making escape seem impossible. As they got in, a friend tried to offer hope. Don't worry, she said, they will not kill us, they will not do anything — they’ll take us to a town and tomorrow, our parents will come and take us.

That friend, as far as Godiya knows, is still in captivity.

The kidnappers drove all night, stopping at daybreak to shift the remaining girls from the vehicle Dinah had escaped from into the car Godiya was in. Those girls excitedly shared the news of those who had gotten away. Day was breaking, making escape more difficult, but the dawn of hope had also risen for Godiya.

They drove for hours and hours, finally stopping again in the early afternoon, just before entering a thick forest. Boko Haram unloaded the girls, forcing them under a large tree with branches and leaves that extended all the way to the ground, hiding them from sight of military planes or vehicles that might be searching for the kidnappers.

The men ordered some of the girls to cook food they had stolen and, after eating, many of the men and girls fell asleep. Godiya lay down and, while she hovered on the edge between waking and sleeping, she heard a voice call her name three times, followed by a pointed instruction:

Leave this place.

She sat up, startled, and explained what she had heard. “There was no voice,” her cousin replied. “Go back to sleep.”

As soon as she lay down, Godiya heard the same voice — again, it repeated her name three times, then told her to leave.

She didn't know where she was. She didn't know how to get back to Chibok. She didn't know how she would make it past the dangerous men, or the dangerous animals in the jungle. But in that moment, Godiya knew she had to find her way to freedom.

She quietly asked the girls nearby who was coming with her — and three friends agreed to follow.

“They kept saying ‘This is really scary. What if we die?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Let's just try. Blame me if we die. Whatever happens, it is on me. If we fail, God knows we tried.’”

They twice planned to escape after persuading guards to let them go past the tree to relieve themselves, but they didn’t see an opportunity to flee. The third time they went, the guard threatened to kill all of the remaining girls if any of the four did not return.

They walked slowly toward the treeline and, as they turned back, saw that the guard was distracted and no longer watching them. And then they ran.

Running, running, running. Turning back to see no one behind them. More running. Hiding behind trees. Breathlessly agreeing to separate to avoid detection, then meet up farther ahead.

One girl went to the left. That was the last time Godiya ever saw her. The other three veered right, split up, ran more, reconvened.

They were thirsty, hungry and exhausted, but now convinced that no one was after them. They also had no idea where they were or how to find shelter. The reality of their situation, and the likelihood of death, began to creep back in.

They kept walking through the forest, full of branches and thorns, but only two of them had shoes — one had kicked off her sandals before they fled. They took turns wearing the shoes, enduring the pain of the jungle floor in 30-minute shifts.

Eventually, they heard voices and saw a house ahead. Their relief was overwhelmed by trepidation as this was Boko Haram territory. As they got closer, they saw three children, cows, goats, and sheep, but no adults.

Their hearts sank, though, when they discovered they didn't speak the same language. They were able to communicate enough to receive a drink of water, but nothing else. They kept moving.

Night fell, and without a phone or flashlight, there was no relief from the darkness. The three girls argued about whether to stop and rest. Exhausted though they were, continuing to walk seemed like the only option.

Suddenly, a rooster crowed — there must be another house nearby. They soon saw a woman, cooking over a fire. Their paranoia over whether it was safe persisted, but their exhaustion won out. They said a brief prayer for protection, then approached her.

She didn't speak their language either, but seemed to sense they were in trouble and offered them food, water and a bed. There were children inside and another woman — the man of the house had two wives — but they still weren't sure if they were safe.

“Our eyes were open throughout the night because we were so scared,” Godiya said. “Maybe she would call Boko Haram to come kidnap us again — but, thank God, she was a good person.”

Early that morning, they heard a noise at the door — the husband had returned. Not only did he speak their dialect, but he had heard about the schoolgirls Boko Haram had taken.

The man wanted to help them, but he too feared Boko Haram — they came by his house often, and would kill his family if they knew he helped with their escape. The girls pleaded for help, and finally he agreed to take them somewhere where others might be able to do more.

He brought them to the outskirts of a village, and pointed them in the direction of a house, swearing them to secrecy about who brought them there. The first house they passed by, they saw a woman washing dishes, and the moment she spotted their school uniforms, she burst into tears, hugged them and rushed them inside her house.

The news of the kidnapping was all over the radio — she had heard about the girls. She would tell her husband, who would talk to the head of the village, who might be able to help. Relief began to wash over Godiya — as she ate, she began to cry. When other women from the village arrived and showed them affection, she cried more.

There was no need for tears, they assured her; they would help the girls find a way home. The head of the village found a car to transport them, handed them money and gave them clothes and headscarves to avoid being spotted by Boko Haram.

If the car was stopped, they were instructed, they should act like they were deaf. Since they didn't speak the local dialect, saying anything could be dangerous.

The driver took them a few hours away to another village, where they hoped to find someone who could get them closer to home. They asked again and again for others who could help, finally finding the head of the village, who located men with motorcycles that were willing to make the rest of the long journey.

At long last, after passing unfamiliar village after unfamiliar village, Godiya recognized a place. Soon, she was back in the city where she went to school — but, like Dinah, found a chaotic scene that proved difficult to navigate.

After waiting and waiting, her father finally arrived to reunite her with her family and friends. Back home, she learned about all that had happened during her more than two-day journey to freedom — including the prayers her family had said asking God to protect her. Losing hope, they finally asked God that, if she was no longer alive, that someday they would all be reunited.

“They had said their last prayer for me, and then the next day, I came back home,” she said. “And all we could keep saying was, ‘God is really great. God is really amazing.’”

‘I will succeed’

Godiya Simon didn't have the words to explain what had just happened in her first class at Notre Dame.

And that's because she didn't know the words that were said in her first class — any of them.

In her seat toward the front of the classroom, she waited patiently for her professor to begin speaking. Once he talked for a few minutes, she waited patiently for her professor to begin speaking English.

Because whatever he was saying, it certainly wasn't English — she wasn't fluent yet, but she knew enough to get by. And right now, she wasn't understanding a single word.

Speaking English with her Nigerian friends, family and teachers, she realized, was completely different than speaking English in a classroom.

“I felt completely overwhelmed,” she said. “I was like, no way, I don’t think I will survive this university. I need to go back to Nigeria.”

No semester at Notre Dame is easy for any student, but for these four Nigerian young women, surviving, much less succeeding, would not happen easily or automatically. It would take an unprecedented amount of work — and none of the four shied away from the challenge.

All had excelled in high school — Maijidda had even been valedictorian — and all knew multiple languages. But English was not the one they knew best, and the English they spoke in school back home was often blended with words and syntax from their native tongues. For some, the Bible was the only English text they read in school. Research-based papers were not the norm, and certainly not written on computers.

The quartet had been awarded special status for one semester as non-degree-seeking students, an opportunity for them to acclimate to a new campus, culture and climate, and to see if going forward with a Notre Dame education would be a possibility.

Godiya standing in front of a door to her dorm residence.
After a trial semester of four classes, Godiya and the three other Nigerian young women were granted conditional admittance for fall 2018 and moved into residence halls.

They had a lot to learn, so they pulled all-nighters studying English. With each assignment, their typing got faster and their writing grew stronger. They rehearsed their presentations for class over and over and over again.

Their knowledge expanded every day in minor, factual ways (learning about the existence of submarines and whales); small, consequential ways (word problems in math classes that used American words like “brownies” were incomprehensible at first); and major, world-redefining ways (they stood in awe the first time they visited the 10th floor of the Hesburgh Library and saw entire shelves full of books about the history of Nigeria, which were nonexistent in their schools back home).

On the first day of each new course, Godiya would quietly approach the professor to explain her background and why she might be slow to understand. Without fail, each responded with an invitation to visit their office anytime she needed help.

“That really encouraged me and gave me hope that, no matter how hard it is, with them around me, I will succeed,” she said. “And it's true — it happened. Without them, I couldn't have gotten where I am today.”

It was no coincidence, of course, that Notre Dame was the place these young women would have the opportunity to transform themselves and their futures.

Mairo Mandara — chair of Girl Child Concerns, a nongovernmental organization that strives to educate young women as a means of bringing change to Nigeria and Africa at large — had been pursuing the idea of sending a pair of girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram abroad to be educated. As the leader of an NGO whose longtime focus was using scholarships to rescue impoverished girls from the religious violence in her home city of Jos, she was always on the lookout for safe opportunities for the young women under her care.

The idea eventually reached Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary general of the United Nations, who previously served as Nigeria's minister of environment. Her cousin, Ishiyaku Mohammed, happened to be a guest speaker in a course taught by Sievers, a former Keough School of Global Affairs faculty member who has had a long career in international development, including working with both Mohammeds in Nigeria and New York.

When she mentioned that Nigeria was looking to send four Chibok girls to college abroad, Sievers told her Notre Dame was the perfect place for them.

Sievers strategically navigated the idea through the University, vigorously pitching it and the opportunity it presented to senior leadership. Then-Provost Tom Burish signed on and became a champion for the cause. Lou Nanni, vice president for University relations, led the fundraising effort to support scholarships and other costs. Rev. Dan Groody, C.S.C., vice president and associate provost for undergraduate education, pledged to offer help in any way at any time, providing practical solutions to countless problems that came up in incorporating four very nontraditional students into a deeply traditional place.

“The system took a leap of faith here on me and on them,” Sievers said. “We put in plenty of safeguards for them, but for everyone, it was a labor of love and faith and hard work.”

Back in Nigeria, the girls were all at home after finishing high school, unsure of what would come next — their culture offered only the prospect of marrying and raising children, or helping their families make a living by farming or through other means — when they got an unexpected call from Girl Child Concerns.

Come to Kaduna. Bring your information. We have a proposal for you. You need to get an international passport.

The girls had no idea their schools had been contacted and asked about exceptional students whose families would be open to the idea of higher education abroad. For all four, the thought of going to school in America was beyond impossible, especially for those who had grown up in rural areas with no electricity or running water. And they certainly had never heard of Notre Dame; their jaws dropped the first time they saw the gleaming Dome on a computer screen and were told it was their future home.

Two short months later, they were in frigid Indiana, living in Sievers’ home, a supportive and nurturing environment away from the constant confusion of their new campus world.

Godiya walking towards the main building with the dome in frame.
Dinah Lawan, Godiya Simon, and Maijidda Haruna reflect on their time at Notre Dame and the impact that education has made on their lives. "Girls in my community, I want them to know that everything is possible," Dinah said. "You only need to believe in yourself."

That first semester was a journey of daily discovery across four classes — English, Writing and Rhetoric, a University Seminar, and math. The provost had established a faculty committee to advise him on the progress the four were making and their future potential. He also drew on his experience as a psychologist, providing Sievers with a list of signs to monitor and methods to help the young women cope during a time of profound change.

Despite understandable struggles early on, they were showing signs of improvement by late spring. Erin Camilleri — director of recruitment and senior partnerships, who had guided the admissions process for all four — concluded after their trial semester that the four could succeed here at Notre Dame. They received conditional admittance that fall and moved into residence halls.

A network of support and understanding formed around them, anchored by Brian Ó Conchubhair, a professor of Irish and former director of the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC), who became their primary academic advocate and concierge. He helped them navigate course and degree requirements and worked with faculty so that exams and assignments were put in terms they could understand. He and his wife, Irish language and literature faculty member Tara MacLeod, often hosted the Nigerian students at their home.

The women joined the Balfour-Hesburgh Scholars Program, which provides support and opportunities for students from underrepresented populations, including first-generation college students. Director Cecilia Lucero, well-versed in helping students unfamiliar with the often confounding world of higher education, created opportunities for social, cultural and academic exploration. The Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies offered funding to support their research endeavors. Nicole MacLaughin, their Writing and Rhetoric professor, proved instrumental in their understanding of — and eventual command of — the English language and how to use it powerfully in the classroom.

As they worked to become comfortable on campus, the young women were also still learning to cope with their own tragedy and trauma, even as it continued to occur back home.

There was the kidnapping, of course, but Maijidda and Laila had their own encounters with violence too, living in Jos South, a city that had seen some of the worst violence in all of Nigeria. As the crossroads of the Christian-dominated south and the Muslim-majority north, Jos was a flashpoint, full of religious and tribal conflict, where school was often disrupted by gunshots, religious sites and homes were torched, and neighbors were slaughtered, all causing the local economy to tank. Maijidda’s brother was killed during one skirmish, and her sister’s home was burned — her sister only narrowly survived after being doused with lighter fluid.

For Dinah's and Godiya's families, Boko Haram maintained a constant threat in their lives. While journeying home after the seminary he was studying at shut down due to COVID-19, Godiya's brother was beheaded on a roadside for refusing to deny Christ. The family was not allowed to retrieve him, mourning only through photos authorities sent via text messages.

Dinah's parents continued to be chased from their homes when word came that Boko Haram was coming — during the harvest season when the group was most active, her family would work in the fields during the day and sleep in the bush at night. Her siblings had long since moved to the safety of cities, becoming four of the millions of Nigerians displaced by the terrorists.

As two Christians and two Muslims living together in a new place, however, there was no lingering bitterness, animosity or division — the quartet formed a vital support system for one another, a fount of familiarity despite their differences.

All 4 girls standing embraced on Notre Dame's campus
For a country where religious violence is common and educating girls is often questioned, sending two Muslim and two Christian young women to America to live together while pursuing college degrees was a symbol of possibility. "We became not just friends,” Maijidda Haruna said, “but family.”

“We became not just friends,” Maijidda said, “but family.”

What became clear to them over time was that, in both their faiths, forgiveness is core to their theological foundation. After attending a Father Groody class on the meditation of forgiveness, all four emphatically told Sievers how committed they were to the concept — Dinah and Godiya even expressed their desire to forgive the men of Boko Haram who had kidnapped them.

“Their anger or grief or bitterness could have swallowed them up,” Sievers said. “But it was their faith in God and their desire to do what was right that made forgiveness the obvious right answer.”

There were plenty of unexpected challenges, Sievers said. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they couldn't return home, so they went to live with Sievers in Boston, where she had recently relocated. As tumultuous as the time was for them as college students, there was also heightened anxiety over how their families would stay alive during that period, which in Nigeria became known as “the hunger.”

Dinah, Godiya, Laila and Maijidda assumed responsibility for their siblings’ education, their parents’ medical care, food and other basic needs by working for the CSLC, sending any money they could spare back home. With federal immigration policy changing rapidly, their own status as students in the United States became uncertain. Fearing for their safety following the brutal murder of Godiya's brother and renewed violence in both Borno and Jos, they remained in America longer than they had planned. When Maijidda's father suddenly passed away, a situation that would prompt many students to take leave, she was unable to return home to mourn. And even if they had been able to go back, doing so could result in being targeted by Boko Haram or violent Christians.

Name a hurdle, Sievers said, and these young women had to overcome it.

“There's not a single thing Notre Dame could have done for them that it did not do,” she said. “But an institution alone isn't enough to make the transition successful — it would have not been enough without the community of support.”

3 girls standing and embracing with Michelle Obama
After closely following the story of the Boko Haram kidnapping, Michelle Obama forged a relationship with the Notre Dame students, and Godiya, Maijidda and Dinah attended a star-studded event the former first lady hosted in New York City last fall.

Amidst the struggles, though, there were also plenty of surprises — including building a very unexpected relationship with former First Lady Michelle Obama.

After seeing Obama describe in news reports how moved she was by the experience of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, Dinah and Godiya wrote her letters, which Sievers gave to Denis McDonough, the former White House chief of staff who had recently joined the Notre Dame faculty.

Several months later, Obama invited them to the launch of her girls education initiative, and they’ve stayed in touch ever since — including attending a star-studded event she hosted in New York City last fall.

Back at Notre Dame, as their comfort level increased and with their initial curricular challenges cleared, all four embraced the opportunity to shape their own academic path and find their purpose.

Maijidda began on a pre-med track with hopes of one day becoming an OB-GYN, but by the time she completed her required chemistry courses, she found she didn't want to stop. Working with atoms in organic chemistry and seeing the way they reacted in experiments, she found, was too beautiful to set aside.

She sought out experiences that built her skills in the lab, eventually working closely with Marya Lieberman, a professor of chemistry, on her quest to detect counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Helping develop test papers that detect fake ingredients in medication helped her, for the first time, see the practical public health implications of scientific work.

It's a mentality that's extended to her pursuit of a master's degree in global health (en route to a doctorate) at Harvard University, where she's been named a Presidential Scholar, with plans to research the social determinants of maternal and child health that lead to higher pregnancy-related deaths in northern Nigeria.

“My lab work helped me envision the idea of how I can be of help to the population at large,” Maijidda said. “You don't get to meet the people who are impacted by what you’re doing, but you know there are people out there you are helping.”

Dinah, meanwhile, chose to major in political science as a direct result of all she had been through — it offered a chance to study gender inequality, political discrimination and communities in crisis. For months after the kidnapping, she had no desire to return to school, but eventually, she realized education provided a means to change the circumstances that had haunted her.

That drive carried forward to her research at Notre Dame exploring strategies for dismantling Boko Haram — her senior thesis on the topic was named the best by a political science major in 2022 — and now to her doctorate program in comparative politics and international relations at the University of California, Berkeley, where she continues to study terrorist insurgency in Nigeria and the potential for a women's peace movement there.

“I’m so excited to further my research, to dig deeper into understanding the causes of Boko Haram and how we tackle it in a way that will not give rise to more conflict,” she said. “We really need peace-building as a framework to get an impactful solution.”

The two others found a home in anthropology. For Laila, cultural anthropology — studying the hows and whys of human behavior in different parts of the world — ignited a spark of curiosity and inspired her to want to educate others. She's now teaching in a Catholic school and earning a master's degree through Boston College's Roche Center for Catholic Education, and has started her own charitable effort to help a girl in her hometown get the resources she needs to attend school.

“Education was a good fit for me and it's something that I really, really care about,” she said. “I want to give other young girls opportunities just like I had in life.”

For Godiya, a linguistic anthropology class sparked a project that led her to a doctorate program at Cal-Berkeley, which could end up having an untold impact back home.

One day, while discussing the concept of endangered languages with her professor, Godiya realized that her own language — Kibaku, spoken by only 200,000 people in Nigeria — had never been written down and was at risk of going extinct.

During her time at Notre Dame, she translated and transcribed thousands of words, completed language preservation training and used social media to enlist the help of other Nigerians to define words across different dialects. She also wrote a children's book that puts an oral-tradition story on paper for the first time and has plans to build a far more comprehensive Kibaku dictionary in the future.

There was a time when Godiya doubted whether she had the abilities to be the one to save the language she first spoke. But now, she is confident that young women across Nigeria will someday have the words of their own language in their hands in a way Godiya and her schoolmates never did.

“There are girls back home who tell me, ‘We wish we can be like you.’ And I don't want to disappoint them, because I know I have a lot of eyes on me right now,” Godiya said. “So I just want to be that strong woman who will help other women who don't have a voice to speak for themselves.”

‘I did it, Mama!’

Laila Ibrahim didn't have the words to express how significant graduating was for her, her family, her friends, her country.

As she heard her name called and stepped onto the stage to receive a diploma that represented nearly five years of hard work, she heard a voice in her head. It was reminding her of all she had gone through — overcoming uncertainty, persisting in the face of overwhelming obstacles, accomplishing what seemed impossible.

But that voice was also telling Laila about all her mother had gone through to get her to this point — a difficult marriage, struggling to support her and her siblings, doing whatever it took to get them an education.

With a diploma finally in her hand, the power of the moment was overwhelming — and had to be shared. Raising her arms joyously in the air, Laila turned and looked to where her mother was seated and shouted, “I did it, Mama!”

The rest is a blur — tears as she clasps the diploma to her chest, rushing across the stage, a joyful hug from College of Arts and Letters Dean Sarah Mustillo, and then more tears as the crowd gives her an ovation that lasts for 20 seconds.

All four Nigerian girls standing in front of the dome holding 2 Nigerian flags.
“What these four represent is what's possible for everyone if the world invests in them appropriately,” said Sara Sievers, who served as host mother to the young women. “What you see in them is what the future is. How many billions of people have their opportunity artificially limited by circumstance rather than their capacity?”

There are countless special moments at Commencement every year, but that word — special — doesn't begin to describe the gravity of that moment on May 15, 2022, for these four Nigerian women.

“I know that so many people thought that I was not going to be successful or capable of doing what I got,” Laila said. “I did it even when many did not believe I was going to. I got a degree, which was something that blew my mind.”

The fact that Laila had family members — that all four had family members — present that day is a further testament to the network of support they found at Notre Dame.

Godiya standing with her parents wearing a cap and gown after graduation ceremonies. Nigerian family members posing with the girls. Dean of College of Arts and Letters, Mustillo, with all 4 Nigerian girls.
Getting family members from Nigeria to Notre Dame for Commencement in 2022 was “a true Notre Dame miracle,” said Sarah Mustillo (lower right photo, second from right), the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts & Letters, that required careful coordination with the Office of General Counsel, Public Affairs, Notre Dame International and many more.

“We were determined to get their families here, no matter what it would take,” said Mustillo, who worked with partners in the College of Arts and Letters, the Office of General Counsel, Public Affairs, Notre Dame International and more to quickly secure passports, iron out visa challenges, arrange flights, rent housing for the families, hire a translator and plan a special reception to celebrate the Nigerian graduates.

More than once, she feared that red tape would derail the entire effort, but the team of University advocates pressed on.

“It was a true Notre Dame miracle,” Mustillo said.

Getting eight loved ones outside Nigeria for the first time — including some who had never before left their village — to attend Commencement in South Bend wasn't easy.

Nothing about the last five years was easy. But it was worth it.

“That was really the proudest moment of my life,” Maijidda said. “And it gives me joy each time I remember it.”

Laila Ibrahim walking across the stage to accept her diploma
Laila Ibrahim accepts her diploma during the College of Arts and Letters Undergraduate Diploma Ceremony, May 15th, 2022.

All four earned degrees that day because of the faith their families had placed in them and their unwavering belief that girls should go to school. There were times their families could have ceased the difficult, even dangerous, quest to learn. But they didn't.

“Sometimes, husbands and wives will fight over whether their girls should go to school, but my dad was different,” Dinah said. “Whatever I asked him to help me with, he would be there. The way so many in my community treat women — my dad is just the most amazing father. My hero.”

For Sievers, what happened at Notre Dame from 2018 to 2022 isn't just a story about the power of education to transform the lives of four young women. It's a story of the untapped potential that lives within so many around the globe.

With the right circumstances, the right support, the right opportunity, anyone — if they are willing to work hard enough — can harness the power of education.

“What these four represent is what's possible for everyone if the world invests in them appropriately,” she said. “What you see in them is what the future is. How many billions of people have their opportunity artificially limited by circumstance rather than their capacity?”

In just five years, these four treasured daughters of Nigeria forged a new path for themselves and those who will follow, one rooted in knowledge and community, forgiveness and understanding.

Now, even if they don't have the words to describe just how much their lives have been changed, they have the words to demonstrate how capable they are of changing the world.

“I am the living example of Notre Dame trying to make a difference in the world,” Maijidda said. “There are a lot of girls out there like me who have great potential but end up not going to school. When I think about what Notre Dame has done for me, I think I should do that for other people, too.”