NORTH ADAMS -- The Democratic Republic of the Congo, located in central Africa, has an estimated population of nearly 73.6 million and has been a center of "Africa's first world war" since 1997.
Though he was young at the time, Alex Mukendi -- now 22 and a senior at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts -- remembers hearing from his parents how in the early 1990s, civil and political unrest halted the operations of the nation's higher education institutions.
"When a country keeps a less-educated population, [people in power] don't feel threatened," Mukendi said.
As a result, he said, his parents, Walter and Aimee Mukendi, took on lower-paying jobs and "took a step back" by moving from the capital to a remote village where Mukendi and his younger brother were born. But when the Congolese colleges reopened, he said, his parents, both in their 30s and raising children at the time, "quickly went back."
"Even though I was young, I was fascinated by how they never gave up. They drilled it into my mind to get an education," Mukendi said.
With the halo of promise that surrounds him, Mukendi will graduate this spring with a bachelor's degree in business administration, with concentrations in accounting and international business and a minor in economics.
Like many students whose families have faced struggles, or who have faced struggles on their own, Mukendi has never forgotten the lessons of his past.
The environment of ambition his parents provided led his family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Schenectady, N.Y.
A recruitment fair at Schenectady High School led to Mukendi's enrollment at MCLA; a freshman-year trip to Shanghai, China; honor society inductions; and this semester, an internship in the office of MCLA President Mary Grant. The latter was something the student sought not for the benefit of college course credit, but simply to learn.
When Mukendi came to Grant's office in early January seeking the opportunity, Grant told him to bring back a written proposal that was "brief and concise" detailing what he wanted. The student did just that, and now works and travels for meetings with the college's administrative cabinet. Grant said Mukendi is, by example, developing a new internship model in leadership.
"It's important to be resilient," said Mukendi. "Tough times are going to happen. It's how you respond that matters. It's something I learned from my parents. I anticipate challenges and I try to keep a positive mind."
Grant calls this kind of attitude "pragmatic optimism," and said it's a growing characteristic she sees among liberal arts students.
"[Mukendi] has his own unique story but he is an example of students across the campus. This generation of students are becoming problem-solvers, global thinkers, folks you can rely on. Through the liberal arts, we're trying to give students a sense of ‘I can make a difference. I'm not powerless,' " the MCLA president said.
She said through service-learning, study abroad and internship opportunities, the college has joined the national effort to better foster so-called 21st-century students, like Mukendi, who can independently think, create opportunities, take responsibility and successfully progress through the challenges and questions presented to them.
"This generation is on the right track. They're paying attention to the bigger needs of the world and know they're going to have to roll up their sleeves. The only way to make a difference is by stepping up and stepping in," Grant said.
Thinking of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mukendi said, "I know it's only gotten worse since we left. But one day, I will go back."