The political minefields of the South Sudan seemed very far away when former Army linguist Simon Tongo of Peabody recently crossed the stage to pick up his diploma at North Shore Community College. His journey to this success was long and fraught with challenges, but he is a testament to what one can accomplish with determination, commitment and perseverance.
Tongo had a rough upbringing in his war-torn country, becoming disconnected from his family at age 11 and living with an uncle, who was eventually killed, leaving him and his cousin to take care of themselves. “I didn’t come here because I wanted to come here,” he said. “There is somebody who didn’t want me to live my way of life. The Sudanese government wanted us to fight against our own people and convert to be Muslim. I was not going to fight my own people and I am Christian and not going to change.”
In 2000, he fled his country through Egypt, making his way to America in 2000. He began taking ESL classes at NSCC, but put his education on hold when the Arabic speaker was recruited to be an Army linguist. “I came to the United States for a better life and then defended it. It was my way of giving back and also a way of adapting to the life,” Tongo said.
He served two tours in Iraq, then served in the Special Forces in Colorado before retiring from the Army in Massachusetts in 2014.
Tongo returned to NSCC to pick up where he left off. He soon met Kristine Babcock, NSCC Veterans Services coordinator, who helped him fill out paperwork and introduced him to the college’s Veterans Center. He went on to serve as the Veterans Services work study for two years.
“NSCC is a great place for veteran students. Kristine makes everyone feel welcome and supported. I saw what she was doing to help veterans and I wanted to help too. I know fellow veterans who have left other schools to come to NSCC because of the strength of its services for veterans. This place gives us a second chance….I wouldn’t leave if I could get my bachelor’s degree here,” Tongo noted.
An active member of the student Veteran’s Club, Tongo recently was one of three student veterans selected to attend the prestigious Student Veteran’s of America Leadership Summit in Rhode Island. The husband and father of three children graduated with a business administration transfer degree and in the fall will attend Northeastern University to study accounting.