New Redbird Israd Mpeko and his grandmother Pauline might live in different countries, but he still thinks of her every day. Mpeko immigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013, when he was 11 years old.
“In the Congo, large families usually live together, so me and my grandma were very close, and we spent a lot of time together,” said Mpeko. “This summer I’m planning to go back to visit my family. I haven’t been there since I got here, so I’m excited about that and to see everyone.”
Mpeko was with Pauline the first time he gave back to his community.
“My grandma is a business owner in the Congo, and I would stay with her at work, so we would go home late at night because she left last, and there was always this lady at the corner. She didn’t have any legs, and I wanted to help, so I gave her any money I had from my allowance,” said Mpeko. “I didn’t pity her; I just wanted to help the lady out, because just because people are going through something, that doesn’t mean they’re any less of a human being than you are. Where I grew up, sometimes you don’t have power or water, so sometimes I may not have enough to help other people, but when I do I want to make sure I do something for them.”
When Mpeko moved to the United States, he brought his passion for helping others with him. He volunteered in homeless shelters, in nursing homes, and at the Midwest Food Bank. That dedication to his community helped Mpeko earn Illinois State University’s McLean County Full Tuition Scholarship, which provides free tuition to freshmen who have demonstrated a history of leadership, community service, and commitment to their McLean County communities.
Mpeko hasn’t served his community to benefit himself. And he noticed that people’s motivation for helping others was starkly different in many cases in the United States compared with the Congo: In the former, many people do community service for their own benefit.
“When you help people here, a lot of the time it’s for college,” said Mpeko. “I never knew that helping people looked good on your college applications, like, ‘Is that all you help people for?’ That was weird to me because I like helping people and have always been drawn to it.”
Mpeko was busy as a two-sport athlete and a member of several clubs at Normal Community High School (NCHS) before graduating in May, but he said that “the least he could do” was earn a scholarship for his mother, Pamela. They moved to the U.S. together, and she has supported him. Mpeko recognizes that he wouldn’t be where he is, or who he is today, without her.
“Shoutout to my mom, I love you very much. You are my rock,” said Mpeko. “We’ve been through hard times, moving here and everything, times when we didn’t have a lot. She worked three jobs, she had cancer, but despite all of that she still made it work.”
“I won the scholarship to go to the world conference, which was in Chicago, with people from all over the country and the world, and it was really great, I learned a lot about leadership,” said Mpeko. “Some of my best friends are from HOBY and I talk to them every day.”
Before Mpeko attended HOBY, he didn’t see the natural leadership skills that others recognized in him. However, after attending the conferences, he realized that he is and has always been a leader, whether or not he tries to be.
“Leading is not being tyrannical and telling people what to do. It’s moving them towards a goal or objective, and you play whatever role is necessary to get them there so they can be who they need to be. I’m willing to not only encourage them but also keep it real with them,” said Mpeko. “A leader is able to move people’s hearts, even when they don’t want to. You have to be able to work with people, not just drop them when things aren’t working out. To me, that’s weak leadership, and I don’t think leaders count when things are perfect—you need leaders when things are difficult.”
Mpeko is looking forward to being on campus this fall. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of taking early classes and things like that, of taking on more responsibilities at ISU, because the more responsibilities you take on—you have to be careful not to take on too much— the better person you can be.”
Mpeko will begin in the College of Business this fall but is open-minded about his future and exploring other majors. He plans to remain involved by working with the growing Congolese population at NCHS and creating a program that provides resources about local volunteer opportunities while simultaneously serving as a space for students from the Congo to come together and make connections.
Although Mpeko has already proven that he’s not afraid to leave home and start over in a new place, he is confident that he still has more to give to his Bloomington-Normal communities.
“ISU is the place where I can be the most effective. I can do something here because I know the people here, I know the schools, I know the things we need in this community, and I feel like I can help because I am more connected here,” said Mpeko. “Before I move on, wherever I go next, I want to be sure that I did everything I could, I helped as many people as I could, and I’ll have no regrets about that, no matter what happens.”