Just a few years ago, Ngone Seck arrived in Florissant from Italy and began the seventh grade.
From the start, she was behind her peers. She struggled to adapt to her new country, had trouble learning English, and, at first, did poorly in school.
Today, the Italian immigrant of West African heritage began her first day of college, on a full scholarship. Her journey is paved with the sacrifices of her working-class family, the comfort of her music and the support of good teachers.
“It just took believing in myself,” Ngone said. “And it just took having people around me who believe in me and, honestly, wish the best for me.”
‘A teacher actually cared about me’
More than two decades ago, Ngone’s parents set off on a journey that would take them nearly 8,000 miles. They left their native Senegal during a lengthy conflict between the government and independent forces over religious differences, and joined relatives in Italy, where Ngone was born. Three little sisters followed. But while the family felt safe, Ngone was targeted at school for her black skin.
“My peers, they weren’t exposed to being around people of my skin color as much,” Ngone said. “So they didn’t understand as much, and I went through a lot of bullying.”
She dreaded going to school, a place where she was shunned and shamed by her peers and teachers in her classroom in Brescia, Italy.
“I had a really, really hard time,” Ngone said. “I flunked second grade.”
Even teachers could be cruel.
“I remember once my teacher stopped grading my math test and then she just came to my desk, and then she threw it in my face,” Ngone said. “And she was telling me, like, ‘I can’t believe this. You are just too dumb. You just can’t, you just cannot do this.’”
After failing second grade, Ngone struggled through the rest of elementary school.
“Looking into the future, I would picture myself in a factory somewhere, or in like a fast-food restaurant,” she recalled.
Then her parents moved the family to St. Louis, where they also had relatives. She began seventh grade at Westview Middle School in the financially struggling Riverview Gardens district. There, a teacher took an interest in her, throwing a pizza party in Ngone’s honor. The teacher let Ngone — who spoke her parents’ West African Wolof language and Italian but no English — use her iPad to translate the instructions for assignments.
“It just really, it just got to me how a teacher actually cared about me enough to do that, because I just never had that,” Ngone said.
$1.5 million in scholarships
That bit of support encouraged Ngone to work on her English. By the end of middle school, she understood almost everything she heard and could speak well enough to get by. But when she entered Riverview Gardens High School, some things were still unclear, like the meaning of the word “elective” and the names of musical instruments. Her counselor chose band for her and the music director picked the flute.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s really cool, but I have no clue what to do with this thing,’” Ngone said. “I took it home and, just like I did when I was learning English, I researched a lot, and I went on YouTube a lot and I was self-teaching flute.”
Playing the flute became a way of dealing with the stress of always feeling not good enough, not smart enough: “It was kind of what kept me going and built my confidence.”
Ngone began playing in the school jazz band and two music groups outside school. Soon, she was taking — and acing — honors classes. She finished high school with a 4.4 grade-point average, making her the valedictorian.
Her work ethic “second to none,” said Harvey Lockhart, Riverview Gardens High School band director.
“She has a big heart. She’s a great person, a great leader; [she] wants to help a lot of people,” said Lockhart, who helped mentor Ngone along the way. “We just had to really help her to balance herself and [help her] not take on so many things.”
But even as she inspired others, Ngone still had her own disappointments, like when she earned an 18 on her first ACT test — good enough for community college but not a major university, much less a scholarship to one. So Ngone started a study group at school and eventually brought her score up to a 28. With the help of an organization called College Bound, she filled out college applications — for 88 different schools.
“I was fearful I wouldn’t get into any good colleges and I wouldn’t have any options,” Ngone said. “My other fear was that I wouldn’t be able to pay for college even if I got in.”
But as it turned out, Ngone had plenty of options.
“I actually got into 70-something colleges, and I ended up getting $1.5 million in scholarships,” she said. “I really did not expect that.”
Land of opportunity
Ngone accepted a full ride to Washington University, in large part so she could be near her family, especially her sisters. She says the older ones, including 9-year-old Aminata, are always watching and looking to her for guidance.
“She will always help me with my homework. I got straight A's on my report card,” Aminata said. “I want to make good grades like her; I want to be generous like her.”
Diarra, 11 years old, has learned the value of persistence from her big sister Ngone.
“You just keep working and working,” Diarra said. “You can succeed in what you believe in, and you can be creative and really successful in life.”
Ngone and her parents — her father Ibrahima is an Uber driver, her mother Fatou a hair braider — are aware that many others are grumbling about what they see as dwindling opportunities for immigrants in this country. Many point to a stark anti-immigrant attitude that emerged after President Donald Trump’s election and his subsequent efforts to bar people from several majority Muslim countries from entering the United States.
But to Ngone’s family, the United States is the land of opportunity. Through her daughter, Ngone’s mother said she is grateful for all the support.
“She said it makes her really grateful that I’m able to stand there as valedictorian,” Ngone said.
The whole family turned out for Ngone’s graduation. After she gave her valedictorian address, Ngone sang a solo from Carrie Underwood’s “The Champion” with the Riverview Gardens High School jazz band.
Ngone is thinking about a double major in music composition and mechanical engineering. She wants to succeed in her own right and also help others. Becoming an advocate for other people would bring her father’s dream full circle. He envisions his daughters someday helping families like theirs.
“He sees that, one day, like all of these opportunities that the country has given has given me, one day, me and my sisters will be the ones that will give that,” Ngone said.
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL