The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Humans of UMW: Ben Onguene on language and community in a new country

3 min read

Onguene is majoring in international relations with a minor in Spanish. (Erin Matuczinski | The Blue & Gray Press)


Staff Writer

A college athlete and the son of a UMW alum, Joël Benediction (Ben) Onguene, lived the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.”

Born and raised in Yaounde, Cameroon, Onguene spent the first ten years of his life in West Africa. He considers Africa to be a “social” continent, placing a lot of emphasis on the importance of family, even if not related by blood.

“Growing up, I remember being reprimanded, lifted up, counseled, loved by not just my direct family but also anyone my parents called close friends,” said Onguene.

His favorite childhood memories are centered around the frequent family gatherings. He and his cousins would play football together while the adults chatted, with everybody enjoying amazing food.

However, when Onguene was 10, his immediate family moved to the United States in hopes of better opportunities and a better life. At the time he did not fully understand the reasoning behind this decision, but looking back he realizes it was because Cameroon was experiencing an economic crisis, civil unrest and other declining factors.

Coming to America at a young age was not easy. Onguene, who only knew a few English greeting words, struggled heavily with communication. In addition, being introduced to a new culture and a new system was a shock to him. “There was a desire to look the part, act the part and especially talk like everyone else,” he said.

Onguene learned English through the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, giving him an enjoyable experience that eventually helped him learn other subjects that were being taught in school.

Onguene mainly spoke French growing up, as it is one of Cameroon’s official languages. Both of his parents’ native languages are tribal, with his father speaking Ewondo and his mother speaking Bassa. Even though Onguene does not speak these fluently, they are still used in their home today.

“I would say being in a combination of two different tribal languages, plus French, gave me an appreciation for languages that still runs with me today,” Onguene said. “Learning a new language is simply much more than learning vocabulary and putting it into some phrases. Each language has its own culture, nuances, history and background.”

Onguene’s positive experiences with language has led him to study Spanish in college, and he decided to make it his minor at UMW. He continues to study French as well, and even though the two languages are similar, he recognizes that “they each tell very different stories about different people in different areas of the world.”

In addition to studying Spanish, Onguene is majoring in international relations and plans to pursue a Master’s degree after receiving his undergraduate degree. He hopes to work within foreign affairs for the state department or as a linguistics agent for the FBI, but is open to any options that come his way.

University has not only provided academic opportunities for Onguene, but social opportunities as well. He has been able to enjoy his time at UMW as part of the track and field team and the African Student Union (ASU). It was not until college that he felt he had truly overcome the struggles of being from a different culture.

“As I learned more about the history of my country and my continent I became more and more intrigued,” he said. “Being a part of clubs like ASU and meeting other people from the same continent has helped me a lot.”

Onguene has continued to keep in touch with his family from Cameroon and plans to return and visit someday.

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