Perilous path leads student Bertin Mboko to RIT

Follow Vienna McGrain on Twitter
Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

A. Sue Weisler

Bertin Mboko, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is this year’s undergraduate student delegate for the College of Liberal Arts.

The road to RIT’s commencement stage has been a long, and often treacherous, journey for Bertin Mboko. His story is one of survival and perseverance that began 
in 1997 with an escape from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where he led thousands of refugees through the African rainforests on foot for nearly seven months.

Mboko, a fourth-year international and global studies major and this year’s commencement undergraduate student delegate for the College of Liberal Arts, fled to the African nation of Gabon with 75,000 other refugees to escape the brutal conditions resulting from Congo’s civil war and his status as an activist and dissident against the French regime. Throughout his eight years in a camp in Gabon, Mboko, one of the few university-educated refugees, spent most of his time putting his economics expertise to the test, teaching other refugees to support themselves by selling goods and managing their meager finances. As president of the refugee community, he felt responsible for their well being and coordinated with the United Nations and U.S. Embassy in Gabon to receive international aid for his fellow refugees—which included his sister and his five children, two of whom belonged to his sister-in-law who was killed in Congo—before resettling in the United States in 2007. 

“It was a difficult decision to leave the camp and come to the United States,” Mboko says. “Many of my friends resettled in Canada, New Zealand and Denmark. Most of us left our families behind when we fled Congo—I still have one sister there—and it was difficult to say goodbye again to so many friends. But I knew that if I returned to Congo, I would be killed immediately.”

With the help of Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, Mboko settled in Rochester, eventually moving to Fairport, and worked at Wegmans after studying English for just one month. He enrolled at Monroe Community College, earning his associate degree in liberal studies three years later.

“I knew that my education wasn’t finished,” he says. “I transferred to RIT’s international and global studies program because I knew this would be a perfect fit for me due to my experience working with refugees and the United Nations.”

Conerly Casey, associate professor in RIT’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, says Mboko’s personal experiences and education have prepared him well for a future in international relations.

“Bertin is prepared to assess the salient issues of worldwide transformation, including global capitalism, media culture and communication, economic development, gender and health, migration, political violence and war, sustainable futures, and human security,” she says. “He has continued to expand his knowledge of conflicts and war resulting from the appropriation and control of Congo’s natural resources, understanding his own experiences within a global framework. And he has made numerous radio and television presentations and speeches to the National Assembly and the Senate of Gabon to advocate for the needs of refugees. He embodies the core values and mission of our international and global studies program and departments across the College of Liberal Arts.”

Mboko, who graduates in May, is hoping to enroll in a master’s degree program and has his heart set on working for the United Nations or U.S. State Department. He credits his success to hard work, tenacity, curiosity and a commitment to following his dreams—and according to Mboko, it doesn’t hurt to smile a lot, too. “A smile makes a good first impression and is one of the best ways to open doors.”

Although he has no immediate plans to return to Africa, he understands that his difficult past is the key to a future that will make an impact.

He adds, “Even if you don’t know where you’re going, you must always remember where you came from.”