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For This Student, The Road From Africa Leads To Austin

Stella M. Chávez
David Kapuku recently graduated as salutatorian of his class at Conrad High School in Dallas.

David Kapuku came to the U.S. with his family in 2013 after his mother won the Diversity Visa Lottery. KERA reporter Stella Chávez met David while reporting on immigrant students in North Texas for a series called “Generation One.” She recently caught up with David, who’s just graduated from high school. He talks about how the past few weeks have been filed with triumph and tragedy.

Earlier this month, Conrad High School students gathered for graduation. Dressed in a blue cap and gown, David Kapuku helped lead the choir.

They sang a song called “The Story of Your Life,” a song about second chances and carving out your future. It’s a song that resonates with David. That’s because when he and his family arrived to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the future felt daunting. At first, David and his siblings had a difficult time adapting to a new country, a new language and a new culture.

In the Dallas Independent School District, students come from 147 different countries. At Conrad, 36 different languages and about 50 dialects are spoken. 

“I came to this country in 2013 and I did not know any English, but French and Lingala,” David says as he stands before his classmates at graduation. “Here I am in front of you now, three years later, talking to you in English. Big thanks to you all … ”

Not only is David a lead vocalist, David’s also the class salutatorian.

David’s had some support – his younger brother Moise was enrolled in the same grade and the two graduated together. Algebra teacher Becky Brown taught both of them.

“They both stood out because they were so determined to learn English and to learn American culture and to learn their subjects, to learn math and to learn all the other subjects,” Brown said.

A couple of weeks after graduation, Brown threw a party for the brothers and their family at her home. There was a lot of food, cake and music.

Brown says she was struck by how quickly David and Moise went from non-English speakers from Africa to standouts at Conrad.

“That’s pretty amazing,” Brown said. “A lot of the students that come from other countries, it takes them maybe five years, sometimes six years, and they’re both very determined and very hard working.”

According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants from sub-Sahara Africa have higher educational outcomes than other foreign-born populations. A larger percentage of them have at least a bachelor’s degree.

David says he’s done well in school because of supportive teachers like Brown.

“She was very welcoming and even though I did not know any English, the way she was teaching and everything, it just got me [to] feel to be part of the class…and interact with other students and do good jobs,” he said.

David also shares his parents’ strong work ethic. His father works an overnight shift at Wal-Mart and his mother assembles products for Samsung. They put in long hours to support the family.

This month’s festivities have been bittersweet. Days after graduation, the fiancée of David’s older brother died suddenly from an illness in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“It was hard to believe ‘cause he left her there three years ago,” David said.

The couple had been friends since high school and stayed in touch after the family moved to Texas. The Kapukus had hoped to celebrate a wedding after David and Moise graduated.

“He was telling her that he’s going to come back to take her to marry her and then hopefully [bring] her here to the U.S.," David said. "But she’s not living anymore.”

Such tragedies are a reminder to David that nothing’s guaranteed. In his salutatorian speech, David encouraged students to pursue work they love. And, he gave this advice:

“Continue your education, but the most important thing is, as you proceed, never forget where you came from because you have to know first your origin to know your destination.”

For David, the road from Africa leads to Austin. In the fall, he'll head to the University of Texas at Austin to study petroleum engineering.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.