Wall of Honor 2012-2013

Nde Ben-Collins “Collins” Asongwe
Nde Ben-Collins "Collins" Asongwe

American author Gail Sheehy wrote, “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.” By this measure, Collins Asongwe is living a full life.

Even though he is young, Collins has faced multiple life-altering events. The first challenge came when as a 10-year-old, he was sent to Sacred Heart Boarding School in his home country of Cameroon. Being far from home at a young age was difficult but over the next seven years, Collins “was able to survive and finally thrive in the process,” earning the honor of being elected leader of his dormitory and finishing school with excellent grades.

Change would come again when Collins’ father arranged for him to go to college in the United States. His father found a Cameroonian couple living in Dallas who would sponsor Collins and allow him to live at their apartment. Collins landed in Dallas in March 2010 without knowing a soul and waited several hours at DFW International Airport for someone to pick him up.

“Once again I was in a new environment that required adapting,” he says. “This was a new culture, a new educational system, and new people”

Undaunted, Collins enrolled at Richland College in May 2010 and figured out how to get to campus taking the DART bus. He left at 5 a.m. to take his first class at 8 a.m. The first year of college was demanding, but Collins’ hard work was paying off.

He was fulfilling his dream of getting an education in the U.S. when his sponsor became seriously ill. Even though he was taking 17 credit hours and trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA, Collins took his sponsor to doctor’s appointments and assisted his care. Collins’ sponsor did not respond to medical treatment and eventually died.

Still reeling from the loss of his sponsor and friend, Collins was faced with a stark reality: if he didn’t find another sponsor, he would have to return to Cameroon before completing his education. Through the friendships made at Richland College, Collins found another sponsor and a part-time job as an economics tutor in The Learning Center.

Collins not only tutors in economics but also helps students with French, study skills, and Calculus I, II and III. He is a member of Phi Theta Kappa and is a founding member of Mu Alpha Theta (Richland’s Math Club).

“The full table of students who regularly come to seek his academic help and guidance is a testament to Collins’ positive attitude, mastery of various subjects and energetic personality,” writes one of his nominators, John Millemon of The Learning Center.

Collins will graduate from Richland this May with an associate degree in mathematics. The next change in his life will be when he transfers to The University of Texas at Dallas to study actuarial science.

“All of these experiences have encouraged me to find a way to cope with challenges. I have found friends and given and received support from others,” Collins says. “I am appreciative of the opportunities I have been given and I seek to contribute to others through my career and my life.”

A.C. Cristales
A.C. Cristales

A.C. Cristales knows about beating the odds.

He was raised by a single mother who spoke limited English. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Garland where gangs and drugs were the norm. He was one of the only people in his family to graduate from college. He took it a step further and went to graduate school.

Today, A.C. is an assistant principal at Sam Houston Middle School in Garland – the same school that he attended as a young student.

“He believes that children who have ‘negative labels’ can change – he is a prime example,” says Kay Coder, a Richland sociology professor and A.C.’s nominator. “He has devoted his life to making a positive difference in the lives of others.”

Kay first got to know A.C. in her Introduction to Sociology in the spring of 2000. He also took her Marriage and Family sociology class in the fall of that same year. Kay says it was evident in class that A.C. had a talent for expressing himself well, both in writing and in person.

But it was A.C.’s willingness to share personal experiences with his peers that impressed Kay and his classmates.

“In Marriage and Family, students are encouraged to examine their family and socialization process to understand more about themselves,” Kay says. “Because of A.C.’s honesty and willingness to share his experiences and self-examinations, many students in our class were able to dispel many myths and stereotypes about males in general and Hispanic males in particular.”

A.C. went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas at Dallas in 2003 and a Master of Education from Texas A&M University – Commerce in 2005.

He has been a public educator more than 10 years, serving as a teacher and assistant principal. A.C. is passionate about helping young people but he also takes every opportunity to inspire parents and educators, whom he believes have the greatest impact on students.

He also volunteers at a local food pantry and is a motivational speaker for various organizations including a leadership seminar and a local women’s prison.

“People of all racial and economic backgrounds connect with A.C.,” Kay says. “His life story alone provides hope and encouragement that through hard work and perseverance, obstacles such as the confinements of family life, lack of monetary resources, and the overwhelming amount of peer pressure that young people face today do not have to be barriers to achievement and success.”

Melinda Fitts
Melinda Fitts

Melinda Fitts is the kind of person who takes her elderly neighbor to the grocery store. She reads to preschoolers at a local school every week. She volunteers at church. She puts herself second and others first.

Melinda’s husband died in a work-related accident in 2004. All of the sudden, she was a widow and single mother raising her daughter, who is now 12. Pursuing her dream of a college education wasn’t on the top of her priority list.

The strain of her husband’s untimely death caused Melinda’s stress-related speech disorder to worsen. It was very difficult for others to understand her when she spoke and ultimately, Melinda lost her job. Her prospects for re-employment did not look good. Encouragement from a friend changed Melinda’s direction.

“My dear friend Tammy challenged me to enroll in college and pursue my life-long dream of an education, which I was too intimidated to consider by that time,” Melinda says. “I met her challenge and went home to apply that same day. I am grateful to her to this day for her role in changing my life and the example I set for my kids.”

Melinda got help for the speech issue from a therapist she knew from church. She was thriving at Richland, maintaining such high grades that she was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa.

At the same time, Melinda was raising her daughter and her grandson. In 2011, just weeks after Melinda’s grown daughter was able to once again care for her son, Melinda’s mother suffered a stroke. She put school on hold for a few semesters to care for her.

After a while, her mother needed more expert care than Melinda could provide. She moved her mother to a facility close to her home and eventually went back to school. Melinda prepares her mother’s breakfast and visits with her at least six days a week. Melinda says she learned her kindness toward others and dedication from her mom.

“When I was growing up, my mom demonstrated Christ’s love for all of those around her and was an example of perfect faith for as long as I can remember,” Melinda says. “I aspire to the example she was for me.”

Last May, Melinda graduated from Richland with an associate degree and a 3.6 GPA. She transferred to The University of Texas at Dallas and is pursuing a degree in speech-language pathology and audiology. She hopes to work with stroke victims and/or people who have had traumatic brain injury.

“Melinda Fitts is a prime example of what can be done even in the midst of personal adversity,” says Sam Tinsley, a professor at Richland and Melinda’s nominator. “She was a joy to teach and an inspiration to me and her fellow students.”

Josiah Geffie
Josiah Geffie

Josiah Geffie knows the value of education. He was a public school teacher in Liberia, Africa, before the first civil war in the late 1980s forced his family to flee their home country.

Josiah, his wife and their five children took shelter in neighboring Ivory Coast. Josiah lived there from 1990 to 2009 until he had the opportunity to come to the United States through the Refugee Resettlement Program. He chose to come to Dallas, where his niece was living. His family stayed behind.

Josiah knew education would hold the key to new opportunity in the United States. He learned of the programs at Richland through his resettlement program sponsor. Josiah chose the pharmacy technician program and has maintained strong academic performance in each of his courses.

Last September, Josiah successfully passed the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board examination. Josiah was awarded the Community Pharmacy Technician Certificate, and is expected to earn the Institutional Certificate this year. Last fall, he began pursuing an associate degree.

Finding employment is Josiah’s greatest challenge, but he dreams of being able one day to afford to bring his family to live in Dallas.

Josiah notes that among the Liberian nationals he’s met in the U.S., there is often a sense of hopelessness about the investment of time that education requires. Josiah hopes his persistence and success as a student has motivated his compatriots to consider continuing their educations here in the United States.

“He radiates the hope, strength and resolve that will bring him great success in his career as a pharmacy technician,” says his nominator LiAnne Webster, administrator of Richland’s pharmacy tech program. “The circumstances that he has overcome are an inspiration. He serves as a great example to all.”

Dominique Jamal “D.J.” Wright
Dominique Jamal "D.J." Wright

Determination and faith. These words describe D.J. Wright, a young man with beautiful dreams for the future. Even though his life was tragically cut short, D.J. continues to inspire others.

D.J. started out at Richland College to earn an Associate of Arts in Teaching degree. He paid his own way taking credit classes, sometimes only being able to afford two courses. Despite financial difficulties, D.J. was determined not to give up on his dream.

He took a part-time job in Richland’s Facilities Services department. Unfortunately, he was laid off after a year of service due to budget cuts. D.J. again did not let unwelcome news destroy his hopes and dreams of getting an education and making something of his life.

D.J. heard there were grant monies available for students wishing to acquire a trade through the Richland College Machine Operator program at the Garland Campus. D.J. applied and was awarded a grant.

Celes Oppedahl, associate dean of Workforce Training, says D.J. demonstrated excellent customer service skills, was open to learning new things, had respect for all individuals, and was a quick learner.

“D.J. was an excellent student. His dedication to learning new skills and expanding his knowledge was an example for all students,” Celes says. “He had a positive attitude and always gave 100 percent to the program. D.J. is everything you would look for in a student or future employee. His future was unlimited.”

D.J. graduated from the 10-week program and two-week internship at the top of his class with exemplary remarks from the instructors, case management, staff, and the company supervisor where he interned. He was hired as a machinist at one of the leading telecommunications manufacturing companies in the area. His mother, Richland employee Sharon Wright, says D.J. was excited and hopeful.

On Oct. 23, 2012, tragedy struck – robbing D.J. of a promising future. He passed away after a serious automobile accident. He was 22.

From D.J.’s success at Richland to his volunteer work with the youth at his church and in the community with pee-wee football and basketball, Sharon says D. J. leaves an inspiring example for others – especially D.J.’s five-year-old son, Jeremiah.

“The moral is to never give up on your dreams, enjoy life, love one another and live as though each day is your last,” Sharon says. “Trust in the Lord, that not your will, but His will be done. God gave me D.J. for a season, to love and care for, and watch grow into this exceptional young man. And I thank Him. I miss D.J.’s laughter … he made us smile.”