Malafa’s story: Africa to Green Bay to cancer specialist

Commencement speakerDr. Mokenge Malafa received another warm welcome at his alma mater when the 1982 graduate delivered the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay commencement address on May 16.

A nationally prominent surgeon and researcher in the fight against cancer, Malafa shared his story before an audience of about 5,000 at the Kress Events Center.

“I am here today to tell you that I am a product of many random acts of kindness,” Malafa said.

He shared his fascinating story of growing up in a small African village in the nation of Cameroon, and being inspired by a Catholic missionary to dream big. He later moved away to boarding school in Paris as a teen, and was directed by a mentor there to investigate the excellence of the University of Wisconsin System and its Green Bay campus for studies in pre-med.

He drew a big laugh in relating memories of his arrival in Green Bay on a Sunday afternoon in September 1978, when he took a cab downtown and found the streets deserted: “My first impression… after the hustle and bustle of Paris… was that I had arrived in a ghost town. Later, I learned that the Packers were playing at Lambeau Field.”

Malafa paid touching tribute to his “American mom,” Marge Weidner, who at the time of his arrival was a UW-Green Bay staff member. She and her son offered a ride to the hitch-hiking international student after he had missed his bus on the first day of school. A lifelong family friendship was born.

Now a top surgeon at one of the world’s leading research centers, the Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute at the University of South Florida, Malafa told the graduates of obstacles and opportunities in his own life journey. He concluded by sharing inspirational tales of his current-day work as a researcher and surgeon specializing in pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent and deadly forms of the disease.

“No single person can take on cancer,” he said. “That is also true of anything worth doing. If it is significant, it takes a team. It is important for you to find a team where your role is appreciated and where you can realize your dreams. I feel that I have now entered one of the most productive periods of my life.”

Read the full text of Malafa’s commencement address.