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Alumnus Profile: Frederick Bw’Ombongi

Aquinas College has long fostered appreciation for international perspectives, whether through studying abroad, international business programs, or welcoming international students to campus. Through renewed awareness, the College sheds a global light upon our local communities. Take Frederick Bw’Ombongi, an Aquinas graduate who has linked Grand Rapids and Kenya through the modern concept of a global village.

Initially, Bw’Ombongi was introduced to Aquinas by a friend from church, who happened to be an alumna. Through her urging and guidance, Bw’Ombongi applied to, attended, and graduated from Aquinas in 2004, with a degree in international business.

“It’s a nice, small college with small classes, and you’re able to really benefit from the intimate atmosphere,” he recalled. “The professors and staff are very approachable, in the sense that you are able to strike up conversation, have dialogue on current events, or even find career opportunities and guidance. Those are the things that really stood out to me in my experience.”

Finding success after his time at AQ, Bw’Ombongi currently works for Spectrum Health as a director of Patient Care Services. However, while working with refugee families as a case manager and preventive health coordinator, he began to see a need within the Grand Rapids community for services to African refugees. “Many of the families that I worked with were coming home and needing volunteers to help with kids' homework, learning how to drive, employment, things like that,” he explained. “So I got a group of individuals together, African refugees, and founded the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center.”

Very well received in the community, the Center works to especially help children, whose education Bw’Ombongi sees as critical. “Many of the refugee families that were coming,” he said, “the kids had a lot of challenges in terms of academics. Unfortunately, when they went home, they didn’t have support because the parents didn’t have the language and were unfamiliar with the education system here. So the role for the organization is to support refugee youth and help them to succeed in school, having volunteers help them with homework, a summer youth leadership program, and encouraging parental support so that we can surround these refugee kids, so they can better succeed in school and in their lives.”

In addition to founding the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center, Bw’Ombongi also founded the Opening Village Doors Foundation. The Foundation strives to assist families in Kenya who struggle with poverty through providing entrepreneurial, micro-business solutions. The organization has helped 32 individuals start small business and impacted over 100 families directly. The 2014 goal is to start 100 businesses.

Currently serving on boards for both nonprofits, Bw’Ombongi shared that this work holds a deeply personal connection. In 1999, he arrived in Grand Rapids from Kenya, with plans attend school and work in the United States. While he has come to establish roots in Grand Rapids over the years, he still tries to give back, to continue helping those in need. “Coming from Kenya myself,” he emphasized, “I understand the challenges that many families face in Kenya, including my own family. Families that continue to struggle, all they really need is someone to walk beside them, to support them, so they can rise out of poverty. Many of those who struggle with poverty in Kenya, they have what it takes - or know what it takes - to get out of poverty. All that they need to blossom and succeed is the financial resources, education, and training that we provide.”

Bw’Ombongi invited students to develop a new perspective, to recognize the great potential within every community to affect change. “Within the ‘global village,’ we need to recognize that what is happening in the world - in East Africa, Europe, etc. -has a direct impact in our own communities. So, my challenge to students is to have that global awareness and concern for what is happening in the world, and really find their place to contribute.”

While his two programs have been highly successful, Bw’Ombongi believed that his education at Aquinas has given his endeavors a firm foundation. “If you look at Aquinas,” he said, “you see themes of service, community service, creating global leaders who will impact others in a positive way. Aquinas is unique, in the sense that it is a place that walks alongside you as you find yourself. Really, the education you receive empowers you to become anything that you want to be. It is small enough so that you can get that individual attention you need to thrive, but on a global scale.”