Most mothers sit in the bleachers during college commencement ceremonies.
But not 22-year-old Donnersson Penna’s mom. He brought her right up onto stage with him when he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in business from Cardinal Stritch University at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Sunday, May 17.
Thanks to help from a video-calling service on his phone, and his girlfriend and her family, Penna’s mother, father and 14-year-old sister attended his graduation from their home more than 5,200 miles away in Caratinga, Brazil.
That special moment was captured in a video – tinyurl.com/penna2015 – that shows Penna giving his mother a play by play as he works his way up to the stage, blowing her kisses and proudly showing her off to people along the way, even having his professional graduation photo taken with his diploma in one hand, and mom on the phone in the other.
His mother, who didn’t know the moment was being recorded, was just being his mom, speaking to him in his native Portuguese, making sure he looked good and would be OK, telling him to spit out his gum and warning him to watch out so he wouldn’t fall on his way up the stairs to the stage.
“I was just talking to her and she was so proud and so happy. …” he said of his mom, a university teacher and adviser.
Penna’s family had planned to attend his graduation – a big achievement for Penna who came to the U.S. four years ago, knowing no English – but he said his mother was afraid of flying and plane tickets were too expensive.
“My mom was very sad because she could not be here for my graduation,” Penna told the Catholic Herald in an interview May 19.
Seeing how sad Penna and his family were, Penna’s girlfriend, Miranda Sakschek, 21, a UW-Milwaukee student, wanted to do something. Being close with her own family in Oshkosh, she said she couldn’t imagine how Penna felt being so far from his own.
She talked to her father, dean of continuing education at Nilfisk University, an online training and support resource, who came up with the idea of putting a microphone on Penna and recording his proud moment.
“Because of her dad this whole thing happened, because he had the idea (of) recording, having my mom there, like Skyping,” Penna said, explaining he had his mom and little sister live with him, while Sakschek had his father, president and professor of a university, watching live on her phone from afar.
Penna came to the U.S. in 2011, with the goal of becoming a professional tennis player – his father was a professional soccer player. He said living on his own since age 15 made that transition easier – the small city where his family lived didn’t have the resources he needed to become a better player so his parents rented a place for him in a city 90 minutes away with a tennis program.
“In this program, I learned about people, students, international students, just athletes who came here (to the U.S.) in order to play better, become better and you also would get your degree and so when I came here I wanted to play tennis,” Penna said. “I never thought about a university, had no idea about my major, had no idea about anything. I just came here because I wanted to play tennis.”
He failed eight classes in his first semester of school when he was living on his own. “My dad had this serious conversation with me and he (said) you’re not going to have me forever. You’re not going to have your mom forever. You need to learn how to take care of yourself and you need to be responsible. … after that I became very responsible, because I saw myself going back to my city, and never playing tennis and never becoming a professional player, never being successful in my life. So after that I learned how to be by myself.”
But that was just the beginning of Penna’s journey.
He used a company in Brazil to find potential schools and to fill out documents necessary to study abroad, because he didn’t know English – and was denied his visa twice.
“At one point, I was about to give up on coming here because my visa was denied,” he said. He applied for law school in Brazil and was accepted.
He applied for a visa one more time, and got it, subsequently cancelling his application to law school and enrolling on a full ride scholarship at Seward County Community College, in Liberal, Kansas.
He will always remember the moments that led to being in the U.S – from missing a flight to taking three to get to the U.S. to riding on a bus to his coach picking him up.
“I had four hours driving from Amarillo, Texas, to Liberal, Kansas, me and my coach, I couldn’t even speak,” he said.
He learned English and Spanish simultaneously, and needed to choose a major, because he realized his dream of playing professional tennis wasn’t likely – though he went to nationals with his team both years at the college, while maintaining good grades.
“At one point I started realizing that becoming professional (tennis player) would not like come through so I had to focus more on my studies,” Penna said, choosing to major in international business, a good fit for him because of his family’s coffee business.
After earning his associate’s degree in business, he was ready to move on for his bachelor’s, and contacted around 200 universities, including Mark Goldin, the head coach for the tennis program at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. A friend accepted there told Penna they were starting a team.
Goldin said Penna, who started at Cardinal Stritch in 2013, was not only the first player he signed, after watching him play in a match in Chicago, but he was also the first on the team to graduate.
“Being such a young team, we’ll definitely miss his good senior leadership and having an older guy on the team to kind of be a good role model for the younger guys, but fortunately, he is planning to stay in Milwaukee to work, so hopefully that works out,” Goldin said of Penna.
He said Penna has been a good leader who lived out the university’s values – like respecting others and putting others before himself.
Even after he developed tendinitis in his shoulder during his senior year and couldn’t play, Penna continued to support the team.
He also helped organize the team’s service projects.
“We also did two service projects this year, one with the Special Olympics bowling and one in Alabama when we were at nationals, teaching tennis to younger kids and he just took charge with that, really helped organize it,” he said.
Besides playing tennis full time, Penna took an overload of credits to graduate on time, and worked in the Alumni Advancement Office.
Mark Gesner, a professor in the College of Business and Management at Cardinal Strtich, said Penna was also the first intern at HISPAinternational, a community of Spanish, Portuguese and English language speakers, which offers second language instruction and cultural immersion experiences.
“One of the many things he does well is he’s good at networking. Donnersson’s got a lot of charisma and really looks for new opportunities. …” Gesner said. “He has a true entrepreneurial spirit and he’s earnest, authentic about how he approaches the opportunities and that serves him and the people he meets very well.”
He said Penna is going places.
“He’s somebody who takes advantage of opportunities in a really positive and exciting way and I’m looking forward to seeing where that path leads, because I think his future will be an exciting one,” he said. “It is someone like Donnersson who keeps raising his hand, keeps stepping forward and thinking entrepreneurial, in an entrepreneurial mindset, and is open to the opportunities in front of them that just bodes well for a terrific future.”