Mr Aufa Muhammad Sidqee was eight when his father died of kidney failure. His mother supported him and his three siblings, and pushed him when he felt like giving up.
On Tuesday evening, he made his mother proud as one of 45 Singaporean graduates from the Al Azhar University in Cairo to receive their scrolls from Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who is on a state visit to Egypt, was guest of honour at the ceremony.
Al Azhar, one of the world's oldest universities, is a top destination for those pursuing Islamic studies, with 240 Singaporeans studying there.
Many alumni, on returning home, become leaders in the Muslim community. Some, such as Mr Aufa, 25, hope to become teachers.
"The art of teaching and sharing is what my mother taught me, and this is what I want to share with others," he said. But he almost did not graduate. In his third year of study, Mr Aufa came down with pneumonia.
He returned home for medical treatment and had to delay his studies for over a year to recover. His mother, social worker Saudah Haji Shafii, 59, told him it was okay if he did not want to continue. But he pressed on. "He told me he wanted to fulfil his dreams, and go back and study," she said.
Dr Yaacob cited Mr Aufa, and valedictorian Nur Diyana Zait, 23, as examples of perseverance and resilience. Ms Diyana scored badly for her Arabic placement test, but worked hard and topped her cohort.
"Sheer determination and grit, as well as a sense of curiosity and a spirit of continual learning are key qualities," said Dr Yaacob. The Muslim community needs "strong and credible" leaders who contribute to building a harmonious society, he added.
These annual graduation ceremonies have been organised by the Singapore Embassy and Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) since 2010. Dr Yaacob told reporters they were important as they reminded graduates they were going back home to a multiracial, multi-religious community, and had to work to preserve Singapore's racial and religious harmony.
"This is an important message to bring back home, to reassure fellow Singaporeans that Malay/Muslim Singaporeans are together with them, to ensure we can preserve what we have achieved in Singapore for the last 50 years," he said.
At a reception for Singaporeans in Cairo after the ceremony, Dr Tan congratulated the graduates, saying they were "the next generation of leaders for the Muslim community".He also told the 300 Singaporeans present that they were the "window through which many Egyptians learn about Singapore".
"The friendships that you build with Egyptians will help promote mutual understanding, deepen our people-to-people links and make our relations more robust," he said.