When Juan Boungou was 11 years old, civil war came to his town in the Republic of the Congo.
He left with his mother and brother, heading for his grandfather’s village – and they never looked back. His mother and grandfather taught him to focus on faith and hope in the future, instead of the losses of the past.
That attitude carried him forward as he pursued high school, a college degree and then a Fulbright Fellowship to study in the United States. It led him to start a nonprofit in the capital, Brazzaville, to help underprivileged youth – and to come to UMass Lowell to earn his Ph.D. in global studies.
“I’m always focused on something positive and how I can lead a significant and impactful life, like Sen. William Fulbright,” Boungou says. “I just want to be a blessing, as this country has been a blessing to me.”
Boungou’s 2014 Fulbright paid for him to study English intensively – he already spoke French, his native tongue, Kugni, and the Republic of the Congo’s two national languages, Kituba and Lingala – at Ohio State University. Then he earned dual master’s degrees from Brandeis University in sustainable international development and conflict studies.
When he returned to the Congo in 2016, he spent time talking to young people to get reacquainted with his country – and to get a sense of how he could help. What he learned shocked him.
“The underprivileged majority were desperate and hopeless. They did not see any new horizons where they could contribute to the progress of the country and the future,” he says. “Corruption is completely normal to this generation.”
But he also met a few young people who were doing incredible things, making their own way despite high unemployment and an uneasy political situation. So Boungou started a nonprofit, Nunga, to bring them together with a group of 30 underserved young people at a high school in Brazzaville, the capital. Working with volunteers, he ran hands-on workshops in goal-setting, gender equality, ethics, entrepreneurship and relations among different ethnic groups.
“This is a generation that no one believes in, [that] no one expects to be a builder, a pioneer. But some in that generation say, ‘If you don’t believe in me, I believe in myself, and this is what I’m building,’” he says. “I want to bring that mindset to these young people who feel left behind, because if they no longer have faith in themselves, it will impact the country in the long term.”
The Institute of International Education awarded him a New Leaders Group Award grant to continue the work. Meanwhile, he applied to Ph.D. programs in the United States – and was grateful to be accepted here.
“UMass Lowell is a cornerstone for me because it’s a very welcoming university,” he says.
His coursework has included graduate classes in entrepreneurship, peace and conflict studies, international relations and policy. He’s also worked as a research assistant and teaching assistant. He even competed in the DifferenceMaker program. Now he’s narrowing his focus in preparation for his thesis research.
“That’s the beauty of this program: It’s flexible, it’s interdisciplinary, and you can find your way.”