Erica Bibalou lights up when she talks about the journey that led her from the African country of Gabon to Rockford, Illinois, and the campus of Rock Valley College. It’s a journey that has been filled with adversity and adventure, and of dreams that have gone from fantasy to reality.
Erica was born in the Congo, but has few vivid memories of her birthplace because her parents chose to leave the Congo 20 years ago when she was just a small child due to the brutal wars taking place there. They took refuge in nearby villages for a time before finally settling in Gabon.
“Growing up as a refugee in another country, it’s not like here in the U.S. where immigrants are welcome,” says Erica. “It was very much the opposite of that so it was a struggle on a daily basis for me and my family.”
Her father traveled around often looking for work and never really had a stable job. When her father wasn’t working, her mother looked for work to help support Erica and her sister.
“It was just do anything to survive,” says Erica.
Eventually her family had to move in with some friends because they couldn’t pay the rent. Later, her mother’s sister and her five children also moved in with Erica’s family. Soon after, Erica’s aunt passed away and Erica’s mother was faced with having to raise her sister’s five children as well.
After 13 years in Gabon, Erica’s family applied with an immigration program for refugees. The arduous process can take years to lead to acceptance and not every family is fortunate enough to be approved. As it turned out, Erica and her parents and her sister were accepted but her cousins living with them were not. Erica’s uncle had moved to Rockford through the same immigration program in 2008 and that is what led her and her family to choose Rockford as their new home in 2012.
At age 14, Erica found herself once again starting over in a strange land.
“Coming here was like starting life all over again,” says Erica. “Everything was new. New world, new language, new people, new environment.”
When they arrived in Rockford, it was late in the school year so Erica attended the Guilford High School ESL (English as a Second Language) program for a couple months and then started the following fall as a freshman at East High School. She spoke no English when she arrived in Rockford, but it took her just six months to learn the language. She was the first in her family to learn English so she passed on what she learned to her parents and sister.
Learning the language was just one major hurdle to get over before she could move on to her next challenge. Making friends.
“I’m a people person,” says Erica. “I love being around people and sharing ideas, but I didn’t know how to make friends because I didn’t know the language. But I had to try. I’m naturally a determined person.”
[pullquote]“This scholarship, going to college, is a dream come true,” says Erica. “It was once my dream, but now it’s my reality. And I’m living it. It means the world to me.”[/pullquote]
As she continued to perfect her English and make new friends while progressing through high school, Erica began to turn her attention to her future after high school. She worked closely with her counselor at East High School and applied for a number of scholarships as a junior and senior. In 2016 she got the news that she had been awarded a Rockford Promise Scholarship and that she would be able to have her two years of education at Rock Valley College paid for in full.
“This scholarship, going to college, is a dream come true,” says Erica. “It was once my dream, but now it’s my reality. And I’m living it. It means the world to me.”
She is now in her second year at RVC and she loves it. She has nothing but praise for her professors, has made a lot of new friends, and has been very involved on campus. As a freshman, she joined the Multicultural Club and helped start the Promise Scholars Students club, an organization that tries to connect students to different scholarship opportunities, and raises money to help students pay for books and other college expenses. It’s her way of paying it forward.
“I want to be able to give back. I want to be able to give more than I received,” says Erica. “A little change can make a big difference in someone’s life.”
She is currently majoring in Business Administration and Accounting and wants to be an entrepreneur and own her own business some day. She is considering transferring to Northern Illinois University after she graduates from RVC in May.
Until then, it’s a safe bet that Erica will continue to make a difference at Rock Valley College.
“I hope that telling the story of my journey will inspire other people,” says Erica. “And this journey has not just been for me. I also want to make my parents proud. I think about the sacrifices that they made even when they had nothing. Whenever I needed help, what little they had they would give it. And that’s what I want to do. I believe that each and every one of us here have a mission on Earth and I want to accomplish mine.”