By Stephanie Harp

“Opening up to someone just a little bit can really take you a long way,” said Allan Monga, a first-year student in the nursing program at  University of Southern Maine. That’s his advice for teens – or anyone  – who may feel discouraged. “I get like that too sometimes. It’s human nature. You can’t be at your top best all the time. You have to sit back and reflect. But at the end of the day, you are here. Ask questions. Don’t feel like you are alone. There are people out there who can help.” 

“I think the staff at school was super helpful with my transition into America”

He credits friends, peers, and teachers at Portland’s Deering High School with helping him when he arrived, alone, from Zambia at age 18. “I think the staff at school was super helpful with my transition into America,” he said. Even though he’d graduated from high school before coming to the U.S., he hadn’t brought his transcript with him. “I was young. I didn’t mind going back for my junior year. So I went back. I was staying at Preble Street Teen Center at the time.” He went back and forth between the shelter and school. “It was hard, but I had to do it,” he said. He got involved in the Make It Happen! college readiness program for multilingual students. MIH, former Deering Principal Gregg Palmer, English language learning teacher Margaret Callaghan, and others were “super helpful,” Monga said. “I feel like I owe them the world.” 

He’d originally tried college in 2019. “Right after graduation [from Deering], I went to USM as a part-time student,” he said. “I had no scholarships. I am an asylum seeker, not eligible for financial aid. I was working part time and going to school full time so I could cover my fees. So that for me was just a lot. … I found myself falling back in my classes, tried making up the work, but just missed so much. I couldn’t concentrate.” He decided to take a year off and work to earn money for college. That year of working was beneficial in more ways than just income. “I feel like the skills I learned during work really helped me – time management, planning your day out. Those are the skills we actually bring to school as well,” he said.  

Passionate about helping people, he’d watched his parents take care of his grandparents, and knew that helping people was what he wanted to do. “Coming here, I said, ‘Oh wow, there’s an assisted living, so I can just go help people, and get paid for it.’ So that’s a win-win.” He started out as a personal care attendant and is now a Certified Residential Medication Aide at Portland Center for Assisted Living, where he continues to work, per diem. “They are so supportive of what I’m doing right now,” he said. They check in with him and work around his schedule. He even can ask to come to work when he has time. “They say, ‘Sure.’ They have been so supportive. It’s wonderful.”

In 2021, he was granted three scholarships – ProsperityME’s Prosper Scholarship, USM’s Promise Scholarship, and another from Maine Community Foundation – that together cover all of his tuition and fees. “I would love to live on campus,” he said, but cites his close relationship with his mother as his reason for living at home. “She doesn’t want me to be anywhere, just wants me to be close.” His parents and sisters arrived from Zambia a year after Monga did; they had not been able to communicate with each other for most of his first year in the U.S. 

He credits friends, peers, and teachers at Portland’s Deering High School with helping him when he arrived, alone, from Zambia at age 18.

Monga won the Maine Poetry Out Loud competition in 2018, and successfully sued the National Endowment for the Arts to allow him to participate in the national competition. Previously, rules had barred individuals who were not citizens or permanent residents. At USM, Monga has not yet gotten involved with clubs. “Mostly for me right now, I’m just solely focused on academics,” he said. After a year away from classrooms, being back in them is a big change. “I really feel like I don’t have enough time to squeeze in any extracurricular activities. I would love to, yes, in the future, but I think for now it’s just work. Homework, school, class.” 

He’s still in touch with his mentors in Make It Happen! “I feel like MIH, even after high school, it still sticks with you,” he said. “The relationships you build with those people just go beyond the classroom. [MIH Director Tim Cronin] always checks in with me. If I need help with anything, if I need advice, I always reach out to him. If he doesn’t have any or doesn’t have the knowledge, he always refers me to somebody who has experience in the field that I want.” 

Monga plans to work his way up in healthcare where, he said, there’s always room to advance. One day he hopes to become a physician. “The pandemic shows us how health is always going to be vital. Everything shut down but the medical field was still running,” he said. 

As for those who might be struggling, as he once did? He emphasized communication. “I highly suggest just talking to people, talking to counselors, somebody you’re close to, friends, family. I feel like those are the things that really helped me the most.”