Finding Community, Half a World Away
Student Serge Kikonda found a new home at UC Clermont — 7,000 miles from his African upbringing.
When Serge Kikonda is recognized with the University of Cincinnati's 2016 Spirit of Community award this week, the ceremonies — one at UC Clermont, and another on the Uptown Campus — will mark unlikely milestones in a journey that began on the other side of the globe.
"If you'd told me two years ago that I'd be where I am today, I never would have believed it," says Kikonda.
Kikonda, who will graduate from UC Clermont College this summer with a double major in Computer Networking Systems and Computer System Support Technology, was born in Africa and moved frequently around the continent as a child, his family following his father's career as a manager with Catholic Relief Services. By age 18, Kikonda had lived in the Congo, Nigeria, Burundi, and Guinea, where he graduated from a French high school. The family currently resides in Zambia, where Kikonda also spent a year figuring out his future following graduation. He had been accepted to a French university in Lyon, France, but wanted to attend an English institution instead; his father offered options in Johannesburg or London.
"But I really wanted to come to the States," Kikonda says. An uncle in Cincinnati made UC an attractive option. "U.S. culture was so fascinating to me. I dreamed about it but wasn't sure it was going to happen. I knew it was going to be tough on my dad. I told him I would do well if he believed in me, and he did. He said, 'I want you to get the best education possible.' So he sent me here. It was a big step for him."
However, another hurdle loomed for Kikonda — the language barrier. While he had gleaned some English skills from watching American movies and TV shows, Kikonda had never received any formal training. He grew up speaking French and Lingala, a native African language. But as soon as he arrived at UC Clermont, his fears dissipated. "I stepped foot on campus and realized it was a small, friendly place," Kikonda says. "It wasn't overwhelming, but starting classes was, because I'm not used to math or psychology in English, for example." At the beginning of his first semester, Kikonda told each of his professors that he was transitioning from French to English. "They were all understanding and helpful. They would always work with me one-on-one if I needed it. That's what actually got me to where I am today. That helped me to focus and work harder."
Before long, Kikonda jumped headfirst into the UC Clermont experience: Today, he is a math tutor and supplemental instruction leader at The Learning Center (now the Academic Success Center); captain of the men's soccer team; and a student ambassador, giving tours and welcoming potential students to campus. "If I get an email that reads 'get involved,' I do, almost without thinking," says Kikonda, who particularly loves to share his experience with the tour groups he leads. "If I can make it through my journey the way I did, anyone can do anything. Doubt and fear are meant to hold you in one place. Anyone is capable of doing anything they set their mind to. If I can inspire even one person to pursue their potential, I'll feel like I've succeeded."
It's that involvement and commitment to UC Clermont that led Kikonda's advisors to nominate him for the university's Spirit of Community Award, an honor given to one student from each college who exemplifies a high standard of contribution to student life both within their college and the campus community. And as he prepares to transition to UC's College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, and Information Technology this fall to earn his bachelor's degree in cybersecurity, Kikonda knows he will miss the campus that has served as his foundation and introduction not just to higher education, but to American life.
"Growing up, it was fun to meet new people and try new things, but there was no home base," Kikonda says. "At UC Clermont, I finally feel like I've come home."