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Therese Kobanghe

College: LaGuardia Community College
Awards: Phi Theta Kappa All-New York Academic Team, 2012; Phi Theta Kappa All-New York Academic Team, 2012

Fighting for Those Who Can't

“I want to be secretary-general at the United Nations, fighting crimes against humanity,” says Therese Harmonie Kobanghe, who moved from France by herself three years ago to attend LaGuardia Community College and fulfill her goal.

Now, with a prestigious 2012 Jack Kent Cooke Transfer Scholarship and her liberal arts associate degree in hand, she is heading to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service on a full scholarship. She intends to study international relations and women’s studies.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation provides up to $30,000 per year to each of approximately 50 deserving students selected annually, making it the largest private scholarship for two-year and community college transfer students in the country. Each award is intended to cover a significant share of the student's educational expenses - including tuition, living expenses, books and required fees - for the final two to three years necessary to achieve a bachelor's degree. Awards vary by individual, based on the cost of tuition as well as other grants or scholarships he or she may receive.

Her interest in international relations and women’s studies has deep and personal roots. Violence forced her mother to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo for France 23 years ago when she was pregnant with Harmonie, as she prefers to be called.

When she graduated from high school, Kobanghe visited Congo for the first time. “I met a girl who was about my age who had been raped by a Congolese soldier. That opened my eyes to gender-based violence in the country. I’d like to go back to Congo to work with survivors, despite the violence that is still going on there. With the help of other people who are interested in empowering women, we will be able to disturb the status quo.”

She also knows the power of education first-hand. “The best thing that ever happened to me is growing up in a notorious Parisian neighborhood … a crime-infested neighborhood where drug dealing and prostitution were common,” she wrote in her application to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “I a desperate attempt to get me back on track, my mother made the drastic decision to send me to a Catholic boarding school in Brittany, which had awarded me a scholarship to supplement the meager funds that she had scraped together for my tuition. As one of only three black students, i felt ostracized and abandoned. However, my temporary exile changed me from a sneaky vagabond to a bookworm, as I was able to escape racism by losing myself in books and my studies.”

At LaGuardia, she won two America Rising Scholarships and was one of 20 CUNY students chosen for the Edward T. Rogowsky Internship Program In Government and Public Affairs, a program she was referred to by a LaGuardia professor. She was elected vice president of the New York Southern Region of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society. She also was a founding member and is now co-chair of LaGuardia’s Honors Student Advisory Committee, which focused on research and on building a network of honors alumni.

Kobanghe says she is certain the well-rounded education she received at LaGuardia will help her realize her dream. “I learned more about politics and society in my Philosophy of Religion class than I would have in a paralegal or business class,” Kobanghe says. “The students are open, and the professors don’t impose their opinion.”

From fall 2010 to spring 2011 she worked as a volunteer social worker at the Central Punitive Segregation Unit at Rikers Island, an endeavor she embarked upon alone with no organizational affiliates. She’s soft-spoken and only five feet tall, so it’s hard to imagine her among male inmates who’ve been isolated for misconduct. Still, Kobanghe insists it’s what she wants to do. “They talk to me; I help them with their problems,” she says.

Kobanghe interned in the office of New York State Sen. Malcolm A. Smith. Her eyes gleam when she speaks about a rally against gun violence she helped organize. Some 300 people marched from the United Nations to Times Square on a cold Sunday morning, Kobanghe alongside them.

“I want to make a difference, a positive one,” she says.