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He’s a leader who is always learning

Interpreter program leads student to new career

Kent ISD — Didasi Mbongya readily shares his secret for leadership: accept as many opportunities as possible.

“Wherever there’s any opportunity available, I want to jump right in it,” he said. “I try to always take it. I need to learn.”

The desire to always be learning was honed while in school at a refugee camp in Tanzania, where he was born and raised. There, Mbongya said, he grabbed every chance to be helpful in school and in his church.

A little over a year ago, he and his five siblings immigrated to the U.S. with their parents, natives of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He’d already earned a high-school diploma in East Africa, where he took classes aimed at a career in social work. When he arrived in the U.S, he already spoke his parents’ native language, Kibembe, plus Swahili, French and had just begun English lessons.

Mbongya’s foremost goal: improving his English and continuing his education.

“I thought, ‘it must be possible. High school wasn’t the end for me. I need to progress.’”

His brother told him about Kent ISD’s adult education ESL program, and it was there he learned about the new community interpreter program. He was among the first cohort to complete the course, where students learn how to be interpreters in health care, education and social services.

Upon completion of the 68-hour course, students take an exam to receive a certificate and can then become an interpreter. After getting some experience, they also may pursue certification through Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters or the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters.

Didasi Mbongya, left, with instructor Hollin De La Cruz, right, and a another student, background, in a screen shot from a promotional video for the interpreter program

Building A Purposeful Life

As soon as he became certified, Mbongya was invited to work for two Kent ISD community partners, La Fuente Communications and Voices for Health. Demand for his skills grew from there: he currently works with five area agencies, and also is a volunteer interpreter at the Secretary of State.

‘Wherever there’s any opportunity available, I want to jump right in it. I try to always take it. I need to learn.’

— Didasi Mbongya

One day he might be interpreting for someone who speaks French concerning exercises their doctor says they need to recover from an injury or surgery, he said. Another day, it may be for someone who only speaks Swahili who needs to understand what an attorney is advising about a speeding ticket. The next, helping a new immigrant navigate social services.

“It is so critical to be accurate,” he explained. “And this is a job where you are going to see all those feelings” such as fear, sadness, anger, relief, joy and happiness.

Sound like enough opportunities accepted? Not for 21-year-old Mbongya. He also attends Grand Rapids Community College, where he is working toward a career in international relations, and works a third-shift manufacturing job. He’s also a catechist and member of the parish council at his church.

Didasi hopes to one day work for a nonprofit, helping others navigate unfamiliar surroundings and resources.

“Those who helped me, I think, ‘I want to be like you. How can I join you? I know what it’s like to have those challenges, so I really feel it.”

Didasi Mbongya and others in a video about the Adult Education community interpreter program

Gift to the Helpers: Fulfillment

A helper Mbongya mentioned by name is Hollin de la Cruz, Kent ISD Adult Education navigator of integrated English literacy and civics education programs.

Having served as an interpreter, De La Cruz said she saw firsthand the need for more individuals in the field. By offering this training thanks to a federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant, Kent ISD can provide a skill set to its students that helps them secure work, she said. 

“We were never able with past funding to offer career training for our ESL students,” she said. “Now we can serve a broad student base because we have a wealth of multilingual adults, and we targeted our adult ed students so they can put their language skills to use. 

“We have so many talented adults. Some of them were doctors, lawyers or teachers (in their home countries), and they get to the U.S. and are working (menial jobs) because it pays the bills. This is very rewarding, and makes my heart full to be able to see them use the skills that are already so much a part of who they are.”

After completion of his Level 1 interpreter certification, Didasi Mbongya, center, got a surprise lunch with teacher Hollin De La Cruz, right, and Anna Ramirez, owner of La Fuente Communications
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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