When Terefe Ejigu failed the SAT to come from New Zealand to the U.S., he thought his dream of studying and running track at an American university was dead.
He enrolled at Victoria University of Wellington, and after a year of classes, a friend recommended he submit his grades to Eastern Michigan University, where he'd been offered a scholarship the year before.
EMU admitted Ejigu as a transfer student, and the 23-year-old will graduate Sunday with a degree in international relations and as one of the top middle-distance runners in the Mid-American Conference.
"Coming to Eastern Michigan has given me so much experience," said Ejigu, who still has one year of eligibility and plans to enroll in a graduate international business program this fall. "Every time you struggle and fall, you just get up and keep going, and that's what running has taught me."
Ejigu was born in Ethiopia. His mother left when he was 5 in search of a better life for him and his two older sisters, leaving them with their grandparents in the small village of Arsi Negele.
After his mother left, she spent six years in a Kenyan refugee camp before escaping to New Zealand. When Ejigu was 13, he and his sisters finally reunited with their mother in Wellington.
But with a new home came new challenges.
"I think (learning English) is one of the hardest things," he said. "It's very frustrating and can make you upset a lot of times … when you don't know how to express your feelings."
Ejigu admits he's still learning English, but besides that pesky SAT, it hasn't stood in his way much.
Soon after arriving in New Zealand, he enrolled at Wellington College, a secondary school.
And that's when he began running. Ejigu's talent as a runner was evident right away, and in 2005 he represented New Zealand at an international track meet in Morocco.
"Terefe's story is an inspiring one of the human spirit triumphing over adversity," said Roger Moses, headmaster at Wellington College, via email.
"He personifies how educational opportunity, both in New Zealand and in the United States, can provide the 'keys of the kingdom' to anyone prepared to seize the moment."
'An American success story'
Shortly after he began running, he met documentarian Anna Cottrell, who has been filming his story since he was 16.
Upon hearing Ejigu's story and his mother's, Cottrell began working on the film "Running for His Life." She hopes to finish it this year and submit it to international film festivals.
"This is an American success story. It's an international story," she said.
Cottrell came to Ypsilanti this week to film Ejigu's graduation, and his mother and one of his sisters also will be at the ceremony.
Ejigu didn't run much during his year at a university in New Zealand, and when he finally arrived in Ypsilanti, he needed a little time to get back in shape, Eagles coach John Goodridge said.
"When Terefe first arrived, quite honestly he was at a very low fitness level," Goodridge said. "But he applied himself diligently. You could almost say, literally, every week he just got better and better and better throughout the entire year, and he continues to make progress."
Goodridge said he's thrilled Ejigu has another year of eligibility because he believes the runner still has some room to grow.
During the MAC Indoor Track and Field Championships in February, Ejigu won the 5,000-meter and mile races. He also finished second in the 3,000-meter run and earned the Most Valuable Performer award.
After finishing track next year, he hopes to earn an MBA, eventually return to Ethiopia and possibly compete in the 2016 Games.
"Running in the Olympics has always been one of my dreams," he said.