By Ashley Rabinovitch
As she prepares to graduate from the Jenkins MAC program, Bibiche Bolobiongo reflects on her unlikely journey to NC State from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In January 2015, Bibiche Bolobiongo arrived in Raleigh to visit her father and his family for a few weeks. During the visit, her life was upended when political turmoil in her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), prevented her from returning home. She and her six-year-old son, Emmanuel, became refugees overnight, forced to make their way in an unknown land without speaking a word of English.
Seven years later, Bolobiongo is preparing to graduate from the Master of Accounting (MAC) program at NC State’s Poole College of Management. “At the end of the day, everything that has happened to me has made me a stronger woman with something to contribute,” she reflects.
But that doesn’t mean the journey was an easy one.
Building a Skillset
Born to a middle-class family in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC and the largest French-speaking city in the world, Bolobiongo experienced early disruption at the age of three when her parents ended their relationship. “In my culture, children of divorce have to live with their father’s family, so I grew up without seeing my mother very often,” she remembers. “It was incredibly difficult.”
In 2001, her father, an engineer who worked for a central bank, emigrated to the U.S. after winning the visa lottery. At 21 years old, Bolobiongo had exceeded the age of eligibility to join him. She remained in Kinshasa to pursue a bachelor’s degree in marketing at the Institut Supérieur de Commerce. “I chose marketing as a field because I love to learn new things, and I knew I had strong customer service, relationship building, and communication skills to offer,” she shares. “I also recognized that the image my country projected at the international level was not a positive one, and I wanted to be part of devising strategies to improve that image.”
After graduation, she landed a job at with a telecommunications company called Congo Chine Télécoms (now Orange RDC). As an assistant manager, she coordinated daily customer service operations and tracked sales targets for the company while building familiarity with the Chinese market. She leveraged this experience to establish her own business, which involved traveling back and forth to China to bring back construction materials, clothing, and other items to sell in the DRC.
Standing Up for the Vulnerable
Nearly all her business earnings went to fund Reveil Mai Ndombe, the nonprofit organization she founded in 2006 to serve the Mai Ndombe region of her city. She chose the name “reveil,” which means “awakening” in French, out of a deep conviction that her culture needed to awaken to the vast potential of women. “Women are the foundation of my country, but many do not feel valued,” she says. “Widespread domestic abuse, sexual commercial exploitation, and financial dependence on men have held us back for far too long.”
Twenty coworkers joined Bolobiongo at Reveil Mai Ndombe to run training programs for local women. Whether they are interested in garment making or agriculture, these women can rely on the organization to teach them practical skills to gain financial independence. Eventually, Reveil Mai Ndombe expanded its mission to serve children, building a school for students with little hope of earning a high-quality education.
Bolobiongo and her colleagues also used Reveil Mai Ndombe as a platform to protest political corruption and advocate for stronger rule of law. “We were trying to be a voice for the voiceless,” she says. “People needed to stand up and fight for their rights.” Their efforts exposed them to political pressure, which contributed to the end of Bolobiongo’s marriage in 2014.
In 2015, Bolobiongo traveled to Raleigh just as protests were breaking out in Kinshasa against a proposed law to extend the sitting president’s term. In the wake of a lethal government crackdown, which claimed the life of one of her friends, it was clear that she could not return home anytime soon. “Leaving my home and starting over was the hardest thing I have ever had to face,” she says.
Finding a New Direction
With a young son to provide for, Bolobiongo knew she couldn’t survive in the U.S. for long without finding a job. In 2016, she began working as a housekeeper at NC State, which provided an opportunity to take English classes designed for French speakers. By this time, the seed of a new idea had begun to take root. She had always wanted to earn another degree, and the accounting classes she had enjoyed in high school sparked an interest in the accounting program at the Poole College of Management.
But her English was still a work in progress, and there wasn’t a well-trodden path from housekeeping to graduate school. She planned to start with an undergraduate degree and work her way up from there. Her plans changed when she crossed paths with several Jenkins MAC program staff, who took one look at her transcripts and decided to advocate for her, helping her gain admission into the prerequisite classes she needed for the MAC program. After being admitted, she applied for several university jobs and was hired as an accounting technician with the NCSU Facilities Budget & Accounting office in early 2021.
Eager to explore an unfamiliar field, Bolobiongo choose a specialization in Enterprise Risk Management. “As the COVID-19 pandemic has taught each of us, we are living in a world of uncertainty,” she reflects. “In this environment, every organization needs to improve the way it structures, reports, and analyzes risk. I have really enjoyed learning the strategy behind these concepts.”
While the principles of accounting came intuitively to Bolobiongo, the rigor of the program stretched her to her limits. “Sometimes you feel like the MAC program will be the end of you!” she jokes. “You are like a baby yesterday compared to what you know today.” As a student, full-time employee, and single mother, she tapped into hidden reserves of strength to survive the long days. “I wanted to prove to my son—as well as every other single woman around me who has gone through hard circumstances—what you can achieve if you persevere,” she says.
I wanted to prove to my son – as well as every other single woman around me who has gone through hard circumstances – what you can achieve if you persevere.
Taking the Next Step
After graduating from the MAC program, Bolobiongo plans to build her skills in public accounting before pursuing a PhD. Someday, when the political situation in the DRC permits her to return home, she plans to teach accounting in Kinshasa while continuing to impact local communities through Reveil Mai Ndombe. “I don’t just want to survive,” she says. “I want to contribute to change in my country. That is my deepest wish.”
While that dream will remain elusive for a while longer, she expresses gratitude for the opportunity NC State has granted her to build a new life in the U.S. “Christopher McKittrick, Kathy Krawczyk, Derek Welsh, Kelly Hardy, and the rest of the MAC faculty and staff have done everything in their power to support my dream,” she says. “They didn’t know me, but they listened to my story and decided to help. Now I am a person who can grant hope to other people. I’m so grateful.”