By Rejane Migliore
Anne Marie Kengne is an unlikely candidate to be an American college student.
Growing up in Africa, where girls don’t typically go to school, Kengne was raised by a single mother who sacrificed even to buy shoes for herself to save every cent towards her daughter’s education.
Now a senior psychology major at Trevecca, Kengne knows that education is her key to a better life.
“When I was child in Cameroon, I could not understand why I needed to study and miss out on the summers, and why my life had to be consumed by studying. Now I’m so thankful that my mother did not give up on me,” Kengne said.
Her journey to Trevecca began even before she was born when her grandfather decided that all his 60 children (from 12 wives) would get an education.
Sixty years ago, her grandfather, working as a cocoa trader in Yaoundé, Cameroon, realized the need for education. He thought about his own life and his need for interpreters to translate from Bamileke (a language of Africa) to French. He experienced frustration due to his dependency on someone to translate with accuracy. He did not want his children to go through the same difficulties that he had to go through.
Kengne’s grandfather did not know how to read or write, and each time he had to do business with “the white man,” the term his people used called the English traders who were dependent on them for business dealings. From that moment of revelation, her grandfather began to invest in his kids’ education, including the girls, practically unheard of at the time.
Girls in Cameroon were discouraged from going to school, but instead were expected to marry at age 13 and take care of their husband, kids and home. Of those 60 children, only Kengne’s mother and an uncle have college degrees.
Life was difficult for Kengne and her mother. When she was a 1-years-old, her father left them. In the culture of Cameroon, a woman without a husband is the subject of mockery, insults and vulnerabilities.
“I remember sometimes we came home, the windows were broken and the TV was stolen, and no one would help us. My mom never complained about anything, instead she just fixed the windows and bought another TV,” Kengne said.
Despite these episodes, Kengne sometimes stayed at home by herself when she did not have to go to school and her mom had to go to work. She would spend most of her time reading and playing with her dolls. She enjoyed reading so much that even when her mother turned the lights off, she would continue to read.
“My first memories of staying home by myself are before I was 4-years-old,” Kengne said.
Education has always been the major force in Kengne’s life. While the family’s educational roots started with her grandfather, her mother is the one that reinforced the need for a good education for her family. Sometimes her mom shared thoughts of when she was in school.
“My mom always was one of those people that had the best grades in her class and other students would come crying saying: ‘I had failed but you passed,’” Kengne said.
The teacher would post the students’ grades on the hallway wall, so everybody could see them. However, this was a two edged sword. Many times her mother was criticized because she was the only girl in her class.
“Some students would say to my mom. Why don’t you get a husband? Your life would be much easier,” Kengne said.
When Kengne turned 12-years-old, she began studying English in the summer. She spent three hours, five days a week studying English and would stay in the school library for the rest of the day. Most of her time was spent reading and searching the Internet.
“I believe that staying in the library reading and looking on the web helped me a lot to learn English,” Kengne said.
In 2004, she left her high school to study at the American School of Yaoundé, in Cameroon, where she spent her last year of high school; this way she could have an American high school diploma. As soon as she finished high school, she began to look for American colleges.
Kengne tried three times to secure her visa to come to the United States before she was successful. The first time she was denied because she did not have an I-20 (form that shows the university’s acceptance for her as a student), the second time it was denied without any explanation. At this point Kengne was ready to give up and to just go on with her life in Cameroon. However, again her mother kept pushing her to pursue the visa again. The third time she had to beg for it.
“I cried and cried and told the council that if he would give the visa, I would come back one day and would show him that giving me the visa was not in vain,” Kengne said.
She finally got her visa and the arrangements for her trip were made in just a matter of days. She left Cameroon on December 27, 2007.
She first enrolled at TSU which found it through the web when she was looking for college to apply to so she could get the student visa.
“She fights for what she wants. She does whatever needs to get where she wants, and she works for it,” Paula Mate, Trevecca System’s Librarian who had Kengne as a student worker, said.
“TSU accepted me, so that is why I came to Nashville and also because my mother had a friend here”.
Life at TSU was very difficult for her and it did not fulfill all the expectations that she had about the U.S.
“I felt alone, frustrated, and people did not understand my English. I had to search for what I needed and many times I had to write down questions to ask them. Then, I started asking myself, what am I doing here? After all that I had to go through, staying here it is not worth it,” Kengne said.
She was ready to move away from TSU because she did not have a scholarship, did not have a job, did not have a driver’s license, and did not have opportunities there.
“She wanted something different from TSU. The connection was not good as expected,” Randy Carden, Psychology Professor who often talks with Kengne, said.
“I believe by the way things happened, this date was the way of God telling me that I was going to start fresh. A new year, a new country, and with a new life,” Kengne said.
Kengne will graduate in May 2011 with a major in Psychology. Her plans don’t stop there. She is going to Canada in August to pursue a Masters degree, and after that, when she has the funds, to go to medical school.
“Her dream was to come to America and get an education. Now her dream is to go back and help the people in her homeland,” Judy Dorris, Children’s Director at West End Community Church who has known Kengne since she got in Nashville, said.