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Cybersecurity student hacks into success by helping others
Inspired to learn English by watching Looney Tunes cartoons, University of Cincinnati international honor student now encourages others
African-born Serge Kikonda had an American dream — a dream he chased all the way to the University of Cincinnati. But as a French-speaking youngster, born in the Democratic Republic (DR) of Congo, Kikonda’s exposure to American culture came from an unlikely source — Saturday morning cartoons.
Growing up, Kikonda traveled the continent following his father who opened new Catholic Relief Services centers all over Africa. Throughout his youth, he lived in several countries and attended the best schools, so his education was better than most.
“But English was a subject I never formally learned,” says Kikonda, a fourth-year cybersecurity student in UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services.
“Most of the countries I lived in spoke French or my native language Lingala in DR Congo, so I learned spoken English by watching Looney Tunes, ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ and ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ cartoons as a teen in Nigeria.”
Little did he know that his slightly unorthodox method for learning the English language would evolve into the same hardy resolve that helped launch his success as a UC award-winning athlete and cybersecurity honor student.
Through his perseverance, Kikonda took advantage of the opportunities UC offered to beat the odds by earning donor-funded scholarships and now adds to the fabric of a diverse campus, one that stresses the importance of inclusive excellence, a value spelled out in UC's strategic direction known as Next Lives Here.
He began his UC career at UC Clermont, where he played soccer and was named to the 2016 USCAA Men's Soccer National All-Academic team.
By the time he transferred to main campus from UC Clermont, Kikonda was at the top of his class earning an associate’s degree in applied science with dual concentrations in computer networking systems and computer system support technology.
Finding his voice
As it turns out, however, the road to success at UC wasn't always smooth. Now in his second year on the Uptown campus in UC’s cybersecurity bachelor’s program, Kikonda reflects on some of the hurdles he faced on his road to academic success as an honor student, a star soccer goalie and a unique inspiration to others.
“As a native of DR Congo, a former Belgium colony, I was offered the opportunity to study at a French university in Lyon, France,” says Kikonda. “But I wanted to attend an English institution instead, so my father offered options in Johannesburg or London.
“I really preferred a college in the U.S., so with an uncle living in Cincinnati, UC became an attractive place to apply.”
Speaking only French and his native language, Lingala, throughout his life left Kikonda not knowing English as a written language.
And so began a rough and rocky journey, he says, including some borderline failing grades midway through the semester. But Kikonda didn’t care how many times he fell, he swore he would always get up and keep trying no matter what.
“That was the pivotal point in my education,” says Kikonda. “My math and psychology professors were aware I was transitioning from French to English and were very understanding and helpful. They worked one-on-one with me for several months to get up to speed with the other students, which helped me to focus and work harder.”
Midway through his first semester, Kikonda’s American dream began to come more into focus as he became fluent enough to tutor other students in math and eventually became a teaching assistant — "all from sheer willpower,” he says.
Early childhood experiences were also vital for where he is today, Kikonda says. As he traversed the continent living in the tropics of DR Congo, Burundi, Nigeria and Guinea, he had the opportunity to not only see the unique differences in people from diverse walks of life, but also the unfortunate similarities.
“Kids will bully no matter where they are in the world, and African kids are no different,” says Kikonda. “While attending school in Burundi, I often got bullied for being Congolese. The kids looked down on us like we were hillbillies and made fun of me because I had difficulty in math so I began to keep my heritage a secret.”
It was during those times, when he questioned his own abilities, that Kikonda says he discovered and developed his inner strength.
If I can inspire just one young person not to give up, even if they slip and fall along the way, and to realize they can achieve anything they put their mind to, that's all that matters.
“Back home, my dad always reminded me that as a family we never give up. Whether we run, walk or crawl to the finish line, we keep working until we cross it. I took this as a sign and plunged forward bringing my quizzes back up until I got As in all my courses," says Kikonda.
“In many ways, those events helped me persevere, never give up and ultimately sparked the desire to help others who may be going through the same thing.”
As a fourth-year student in UC's information technology cybersecurity program, much of Kikonda’s altruistic fulfillment now comes from the confidence he instills in young people, especially as a soccer coach for the Cincinnati Soccer Club with elementary kids and at a Newport daycare center where he volunteered for a semester last spring.
“When I need help staying on track, I always go back to my mantra, part of a Spider-Man 2 quote, ‘Sometimes to do what’s right, we have to be steady and give up the things we want the most,’” he adds. “So early on I gave up video games and soccer to focus on making sure my transition was complete before expanding my horizons and activities again.”
That continued drive and commitment helped him earn a Spirit of Community award, an honor given to one student from each college who exemplifies a high standard of contribution to student life both within their college and the campus community.
“Serge was such a big influence on me,” says Brandon Storer, third-year business and marketing student in UC’s Lindner College of Business, and Kikonda's former soccer teammate at UC Clermont. “I met him on my first day at Clermont when he gave us a tour of campus. Since then he has helped support me to stay on track, and now we are close friends.
“I watched him receive the USCAA Men's Soccer National All-Academic award for his academics and record on the field where he inspired me to earn that award myself. For the next two semesters I followed his path, worked hard and got good grades while keeping my soccer stats high. As a result, I received that same award the following year, which really changed my life.”
Now that he is on main campus, Storer says he hopes to follow in Kikonda’s footsteps and become an outreach volunteer as a student ambassador next semester.
Persistence pays off
Kikonda continues to leave his fingerprints wherever he goes on campus. As a transfer student ambassador he can be found helping large groups of new transfer students have a smooth transition to main campus, quelling any fears they may have about the transition. He also volunteers in UC’s Accessibility Resources office empowering students with diverse needs to take notes and study effectively.
“I hope I eventually inspire someone else to feel empowered enough to come in and take my job from me,” he adds.
As a high achiever who broke language barriers and turned bullying into building character, Kikonda never gave up. Today he is a cybersecurity honor-student athlete with inspirational outreach and a General Electric co-op experience under his belt. After graduating UC in 2020, Kikonda hopes to work in the nation’s capital for Homeland Security.
“I want to continue to help people, and I can do that by helping to protect individuals and governments in cyberspace on a large scale," says Kikonda.
“I’m not looking for recognition as the man out front but rather the guy behind the scenes preventing cyberattacks, building impenetrable sites and helping people and nations stay cyber safe and secure.”
Feature image at top: Serge Kikonda came from the other side of the world to find his academic and athletic success at the University of Cincinnati — leaving a legacy of inspiration and tenacity for other students to follow. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services