This article appeared in the May 15, 2018, issue of the student newsletter.
In early April, Heber Bibang kept getting texts from his advisor Darius Frasure while Heber was at his job at the Mountain View advising center. Darius told Heber he needed Heber to come by his office because there was an emergency.
Technically, Darius wasn't lying.
It took some convincing to pull Heber away from work, but he eventually relented. When Heber got to Darius' office, Darius told him he was a Jack Kent Cooke scholar, which comes with $40,000 in scholarship money.
“The first thing that I did, I just kneeled down and I thanked God. That was my first reaction. And then I was so happy,” Heber says. “We hugged each other and he gave me a lot of encouragement, and I was so happy. I just felt like — I don't know. I didn't even feel like myself. I start running down the hall shouting. People came out like, 'What's going on?'”
It would be a big deal for anyone, but especially so for someone who came to the United States for the first time less than four and a half years ago without knowing anybody or speaking any English.
“Just making that decision to come from Africa to the United States — that was the biggest challenge,” he says “I could've gotten lost on the way because I didn't know English. Even on the plane, I would just follow the people sometimes. I would just follow the people.”
Heber was born in Libreville, the impoverished capital city of Central African country Gabon. The circumstances he grew up in set him up for the path he's on now — before he even knew what that path was.
“I grew up in a very poor city with a restricted supply of energy. And so sometimes during the hot season, we suffered from power outages,” he says “And at those moments, I realized I wanted to become a scientist who could provide an energy supply to the population.”
While Heber was attending high school in Libreville, he developed an interest in petroleum engineering, a field of engineering that deals with developing methods for extracting oil and gas from deposits below the Earth's surface. That happened to be right in line with Heber's interests and problems in his home country.
Unfortunately, he wasn't going to get what he needed in Gabon.
“My parents, they have given me an incredible education at home. They have given me ethics, they have given me culture and also they have given me a very resourceful education,” Heber says. “They have taught me that if you want to be great in life, you have to put a lot in education.”
So, after speaking with a recruiter, Heber's parents sent him to Greensboro, N.C., to further his education.
Heber landed in North Carolina on Dec. 27, 2013. He was by himself. He didn't know anybody. He didn't speak any English. It was a “scary, but fascinating adventure.”
“It was cold,” he says, laughing.
Heber's first language is French, and he is also fluent in Fang, a Central African language spoken by about a million people in Africa. To learn English, Heber was enrolled in the American Language Academy (ALA) in Greensboro.
He spent all of 2014 with a singular focus: to become fluent in English. His dedication to learning a new language went well beyond the classroom, though.
“So I changed everything: my device to English, Facebook to English, everything in English," he says. “And I tried to stay away from people who spoke the same language as me.”
While he was in school in North Carolina, he lived with Mary Jeanne Bolonge, whose family hosted him for a year and a half. He still keeps in with Mary Jeanne and her family.
“She is my mom. I owe her so much,” Heber says of Mary Jeanne.
The feeling was mutual.
“He would come home from school to help me. He would tell me, 'Oh mom, no, no, no, I'll do this,'" Mary Jeanne says, laughing. “He didn't give me any problems. Everywhere I'd go — I went to church with him every Sunday.”
Despite enjoying school and home life, Heber's first year in the United States was rocky.
“My first year in the country was one of the toughest years of my life," he says. “That was crazy because I faced many adversities and obstacles, which I eventually overcame because I knew that I had a goal and I wanted to achieve something.”
Heber's tuition at the school was difficult for him to deal with — he says he was paying more than $3,200 every two months, although the school eventually gave him an exception, which allowed him to only pay half tuition. So all the money he got from his parents usually went toward his education. That meant scraping by in other areas.
“I was living with a host family, but my school was maybe 30 minutes by bus. And so sometimes, yes, I had to walk to school because all the money I received — I was so concerned for my education, I put everything in that school.
“At one point, I was almost sent to Immigration because, you know, I couldn't really afford the tuition. But this has never discouraged me from dreaming, to keep pushing forward with my education. Because whenever adversities rose, I always chose the path of education. Always.”
After he graduated from the ALA ESL program, he started taking classes at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Greensboro. He only stayed for a semester, though.
“Because I knew I wanted to do petroleum engineering, I started looking at schools around North Carolina, Greensboro, Charlotte. All these cities," he says. “And no universities offered petroleum engineering. None of them in North Carolina. I didn't find anything. I was like, 'This is an obstacle. I cannot stay here.'”
His parents put him in contact with a friend's daughter who lived in Texas. She told him Texas was the best place to be to learn more about energy and oil. She also told him about Mountain View because of its affordability and scholarship opportunities.
That was all Heber needed to hear, and he enrolled in time for the fall 2015 semester. The opportunity was finally there for him to pursue his dream, but the decision to leave was far from an easy one.
“He's a good son. I loved having him here, but he told me, 'Mom, I need to go to Texas to continue my classes,'” Mary Jeanne says. “I miss my son. Every time when I talk to him, I'm crying because I miss him.”
A few weeks before walking across the stage to get his associate degree, Heber reflects on how much he's done since he first stepped foot on Mountain View's campus.
He's on the academic street team. He's a Student Ambassador. He's a STEM Ambassador. This year, he was one of two Mountain View students selected for the All-Texas Academic Team. He was also one of just 20 students in the entire nation selected for the All-USA Academic Team. Last spring, he was one of 10 recipients of the Outstanding Student of the Year award. This semester, Mountain View recognized Heber as an Honors Scholar.
His resume reads like a roll call of prestigious accomplishments you can receive as a community college student. And it's all by design.
“Usually in college, students just come to class and then go back home. But opportunities really are there for them; you just have to be curious. You just have to ask questions and connect yourself to the right people,” he says. “Because it's not about what you know, it's about who you know. And these people that you connect with create that environment or the atmosphere for you to grow into a leader and a better student.”
It's not an accident that Heber used the old “it's not about what you know, but who you know” phrase, either. The first club Heber joined at Mountain View was the writing club. Luke Story, one of Heber's advisors at Mountain View, recruited him. That's when he got in contact with another advisor, Darius Frasure, who also uses the phrase.
“These are the very two people who have helped me really excel,” Heber says.
Darius, an English professor at Mountain View and the chapter advisor for the Omega Omega chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, eventually got Heber to join the international honor society.
“About two years ago, one of the young men who was an officer whom I was mentoring — his name is Daniel — he let me know about Heber,” Darius says. “He said, 'This'll be a good person to replace me.' He said, 'I've been talking to him, kind of mentoring him.' And that's how I first met [Heber].”
Initially, Heber was a little hesitant to join.
“He said, 'That looks like a lot of work, what y'all aredoing over there. I don't know about this,'” Darius says, laughing. ”He's like, 'I'm just trying to do what I can, trying to figure out work situations, how I'm going to survive and everything.' And I was like, 'Man, come on.' I just pretty much gave him the spiel. You know, Daniel and the other officers at that time kind of buttered him up, and he became the VP of Hallmarks.”
After a successful tenure as vice president of Hallmarks, Darius got Heber to run for president.
“There's some opportunities like Jack Kent Cooke, stuff that he won this year that he didn't win last year, that he didn't apply for,” Darius says. "This year, I said, 'Let's hit a home run.' So he reluctantly ran for president.”
He may have reluctantly run, but it's all paid off. It's a wonder he keeps up with everything he's got on his plate, though.
“I would say it's something inside myself. It's just how driven I am. I'm always curious because I know there are plenty of opportunities, you just have to go get them.
“Sometimes there are moments where we have workshops — scholarship workshops — or career service workshops, stuff like that. And I will be the only one at those workshops. Maybe there are two or three students. But these little sacrifices that you make come with a reward later. You just have to put yourself into it and really be dedicated.”
Ultimately, Heber's story is one of perseverance and persistence.
“It's about development. And for [Heber], his road started from nothing,” Darius says. “And I count myself fortunate that I was able to get on at a level where he's still humble, he's still developing, he's still seeking opportunities and everything. Because even now, he has the same attitude having achieved the highest levels of success in academia, college's highest awards.”
Heber spends hours at a time looking for scholarships. And even though he takes a needed — and deserved — break every once in a while, he gained familiarity with a few important people.
“The thing is, many students don't apply. They're like, 'Nah, I'm not going to get it anyway; I don't even want to apply,'” he says. “Usually, I apply for the DCCCD scholarships. They even know me over there. I usually apply for, like, 25 or 30 scholarships. They know me over there.”
He's got the next handful of years mapped out already. Heber will attend Texas Tech this fall, where he plans to earn his bachelor's in petroleum engineering. Then he'll move on to either UT-Austin or Texas A&M to work toward a graduate degree in both petroleum engineering and mechanical engineering. That will allow him to start working toward his doctorate in 2021.
Then he can start using those degrees outside of school.
“I want to specialize in drilling and reservoir. I'd like to be able to create or find a better or more efficient way to extract the oil with less cost,” he says. “And also, I'd like to have my own gas station, which would provide affordable oil to low-income families. And I want to work with either Exxon or Shell. These big oil companies. That's my goal.”
With everything Heber has accomplished since he landed in Greensboro less than four and a half years ago, including becoming fluent in English in a year and winning multiple scholarships, it's hard to imagine him not meeting each of his goals.
“He's one of those that I'm confident he'll be good because I've talked to him over time, and you look at the writing on the wall,” Darius says. “What it is that I'm really proud of and that I'm really encouraged by is the work he's put in. We need more Hebers in the world.”