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Student Speaker Gives Back Through Service, Leadership

Winter Commencement Speaker Isaac Tongo radiates positivity. “I wake up every day and tell myself I’m going to have a good day,” he said. A newly minted alumni with a Bachelor of Science in Leadership, he’s also a South Sudanese refugee, a non-commissioned officer in the Army and a father of five. Tongo joined the military in gratitude for the country he loves, and now with his degree in hand, he’s focused on being an even better leader for those serving with him.

Finding Opportunity in America

Born in South Sudan, Tongo and his family became refugees as a civil war forced them out of their homeland. “We traveled on foot to Ethiopia,” he said. The family lived in a refugee camp, and one day Tongo’s uncle was able to secure two applications to evacuate to the United States. Opportunities were limited, so he moved to America at 12 years old with his uncle, while his parents remained in Africa. He lived in New Hampshire, then Des Moines, Iowa, and finally Omaha, Nebraska, where he graduated from high school. “I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t come to the U.S.,” he said. “America is the land of dreams.”

Tongo began working after high school, even though he wanted to join the military. “I love to serve people. I wanted to give that time back, for the second chance I got at life,” he said. As fate would have it, he helped a Navy recruiter while working at Target and decided to enlist. Over the course of two years, he experienced continual setbacks due to extensive background checks. After having to change jobs three times while waiting to start his new military career, Tongo enlisted in the Army instead, and was sworn in within a week. He’s now served for five years.

Gearing Education Toward Service

The journey to a bachelor’s degree had many twists and turns for Tongo. He completed two years at a community college, then chose Bellevue University when he was moving back to the Omaha area from Colorado. “I chose Bellevue University because the evening classes catered to adult learning,” he said.

Tongo said the Admissions office went above and beyond to help him get started. “There are so many people at BU that were instrumental to my success,” he said. As he took classes, he ultimately decided leadership would be the best fit. “I decided I needed the tools to be a better, more effective leader,” he said. “I also want to give other soldiers the chance to be leaders.”

He started with in-person classes, but completed his cohort online. This proved crucial, as he was traveling quite often for the military, including a stint overseas and a move to Tennessee.  “The program director Dr. (David( Byers is an amazing human being,” Tongo said. “I was always moving and always quarantining, but he would not allow me to fail.”

Tongo said the leadership program felt like a family and he was happy to be included. “I felt connected to my classmates,” he said. “Everyone was so genuine.” His classmates also appreciated his unique perspective from having experienced war. “When talking about leadership theory and concepts, I had something more personal to offer. I see things differently,” he said. “Everything I endured made me a better person.”

Though he sometimes had to sacrifice time with his kids, Tongo was determined to complete his degree. “My father is a preacher, and he always told me to never lose that faith,” he said. “That’s what kept me grounded throughout the process of earning my degree and my time in the military.”

Sharing About, Applying His Experience

When Dr. Byers nominated Tongo for student speaker, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it. “I’ve never spoken in front of that many people before,” he said. He was also busy with military leadership school and preparing for the arrival of his new baby girl, who was born March 10. Ultimately, he decided speaking at graduation was the right opportunity for him.

“I wasn’t sure what to talk about and my mother said, ‘Son, speak from the heart and be yourself. That’s what I did,” Tongo said. When he made it to the final selection round for student speaker, he was the only one of the three finalists to fly to Omaha to present his speech in person. “When they told me I had been chosen as the student speaker, I froze. I had no words,” he said.

Tongo is already applying his leadership learnings to his career and looks forward to continued growth personally and professionally. “The things we do in the military are different – the way we communicate. I listen to my men more now,” he said. “I’m more calm and more patient. I ask myself ‘how can I help these soldiers?’ ” he said. “I stay positive and optimistic about what tomorrow will bring.”

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