Black History Month

Against All Odds, Mercy Besong Is About To Achieve Her Late Mother's Dream

Mercy Besong plans to give back.

This Black History Month, we've got our eyes on the current class of leaders, who, standing on the shoulders of giants, move the conversation forward through hard work, determination, and ingenuity. From HBCU valedictorians to entrepreneurs leading the charge, here's to the next generation.

Mercy Besong knew that no matter what happened, she was going to go to college.

The 25-year-old student is set to graduate from Alabama State University in December. It was a tragedy in Limbe, Cameroon, a small beach town in West Africa, that helped set her on a path to the Yellowhammer State and her future career.

When Besong was a young girl, her family was desperately poor. She told A Plus that on some days she didn't eat, and her mother struggled to pay the bills and scrape together the money needed to send her and her four siblings to school. With no other options, Besong's mother even worked the streets as a prostitute to raise money for her children's school fees, books and uniforms.

"As a result of the prostitution, she became ill and she contracted HIV," Besong told A Plus. "And then she died when I was 5 years old. Her wanting me to go school was something that I held onto, and I saw her fight and I saw her struggle and I took it upon myself to work to better myself and do everything she always wanted me to do."

With no father she knew of and her mother gone, Besong moved to the United States when she was 12 and was adopted by her uncle. She became a U.S. citizen. No matter what, she told herself, she would go to school and live up to her mother's dreams.

"But things don't always happen as we plan," Besong said.

A member of the family was physically abusive, she told A Plus. Besong was heartbroken, and couldn't understand how or why she was being rejected by a family that was supposed to care for her. 

"I didn't understand what was going on," Besong said. "All I knew is that I didn't want to be around people who didn't want me or didn't see me."

Despite the abuse, she managed to complete high school by the time she was 17. Her determination helped her handle her home environment and school at once and she — again — promised herself that she'd find a way to attend college. But as she applied to school, she faced a harrowing reality: almost everywhere she got in, she didn't qualify for financial aid. Her adoptive parents were both pharmacists and they continued to claim her on their taxes, she told A Plus. Because they made so much money, money they wouldn't put towards her education, Besong didn't qualify for financial aid. 

Besong (left) poses for a picture with fellow students.
Besong (left) poses for a picture with fellow students. Mercy Besong 

As she worked multiple jobs in hopes of paying her way through college, her adoptive mother became enraged that she wasn't living up to her "purpose." Besong says her adoptive mother felt she should work as a maid and take care of the kids in their home. 

Besong said that the conflict that followed pushed her to call the police. One of the officers who came told her that because she had graduated high school, she could actually leave the house legally, despite being 17.

Besong took the advice and ran with it.

That night, someone she knew through church came over and helped her pack her thing. She left and never went back. Before she turned 18, Besong had her own apartment and was living with her best friend. She told A Plus that she had been accepted into University of West Alabama in Livingston but — again — was plagued by the fact her adoptive parents had claimed her on their taxes. She wasn't aware that she needed her adoption papers to apply for financial aid, and when she asked her adoptive parents, she said they told her to go and get them on her own. After a semester at school, she learned that her financial aid was again being denied, so she dropped out and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, about three hours from Livingston. 

Again, Besong got a job. For three years, she saved money and continuously tried to file taxes for herself and get financial assistance. In 2014, she got into Alabama State University. Her effort finally paid off and she received a federal Pell Grant that covered part of her tuition.

It was the 22nd school she had applied to. Some she didn't get into, others she was accepted by but couldn't receive the financial aid she needed to attend.

During her first semester at ASU, Besong quickly realized her Pell Grant wasn't going to be enough. She was forced to take out another loan to cover her tuition. Around that time, she got a call that changed her life. It was from the director of the Bridge Program, a comprehensive education program at Alabama State University that helps students with SAT and ACT testing. He asked her if she had ever heard of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) first generation scholarship. TMCF is a national organization that supports the 47 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States by offering scholarships to high-performing students. 

There was just one catch: she had 45 minutes to complete the application. 

Besong attending a leadership event through TMCF.
Besong attending a leadership event through TMCF. Mercy Besong

"I had never completed a full scholarship application before," Besong said. "I just sat there and wrote my story on why I should get this scholarship and what my struggles are how this scholarship would effect my life. Out of thousands of students that applied, I was selected."

From that moment on, Besong has had success after success. She was invited to speak at the TCMF Leadership Institute in Washington D.C. She was selected as an Apple Scholar, earned the Coca Cola Presidential Scholarship, became a Walmart First Generation Mentor and was awarded Wells Fargo Scholarship, among others.

"Being able to go through that cycle is something my mother always wanted for me," Besong said. "It is a dream come true for me to be an example for my family. My brother is enrolled in college now."

Besong is studying accounting at Alabama State University and plans to get a master's degree in forensic accounting after graduating in December. Her goal is to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). After that, her plan is to go to law school. Besong wants to make enough money that she can both give back to her community back home and support her siblings and their children. 

As for her non-educational plans after graduation, she has one big date on her calendar: a trip home to Cameroon with her brother. 

"I haven't been able to travel home yet and I've been here twelve years," Besong said. "I told my brother we were leaving the day after graduation. We're leaving in two weeks."

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