First-year student from two continents stops at USC on her way to two more

First-year student from two continents stops at USC on her way to two more

Lesley Omenge’s life journey has taken her across oceans and cultures. Immersing herself in the customs of others, her destination is somewhere on the other side of borders.

September 08, 2021 Ron Mackovich-Rodriguez

Lesley Omenge figured out how to adjust to Texas life when she arrived there from Kenya a decade ago. The adjustment was not without pain, but she met it with resilience. Omenge wrote about this in her college essay, recounting her first few days in elementary school. The same question was hurled at her over and over: Where are you from?

She told them, “I’m African,” but upon hearing her accent and broken English, they acted as though she couldn’t understand what they were saying. She did, but she also lacked the vocabulary to counter.

So Omenge started checking out books above her reading level, wearing out a dictionary and journaling every chance she got. Soon, she had her answer to the unremitting question: I’m American.

A self-described chameleon, her cultural identity extends beyond traditional boundaries.

“In school, I was often surrounded by Hispanics, and each time they were talking to each other I’d pick up a little bit of Spanish,” Omenge said. “In seventh grade, I joined the Turkish Olympian Club. I got to taste their foods and I learned some Turkish. Along the way, I learned a little bit about the Muslim religion. I have a lot of little-bit-ofs.”

Those collective bits of culture, education and a strong sense of faith led Lesley to the USC Bovard Scholars program, which helps high-achieving students gain admission to top universities. Inspired, Omenge plans to form an organization abroad that focuses on improving access to education after she earns her World Bachelor in Business. The degree, part of the USC Marshall School of Business, includes a year of study at both the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, with a goal of creating global citizens proficient in international business.

“You can’t help people if you don’t know them, if you don’t know their values,” Omenge said. “The best way to see that is to go to those places and embrace that culture.”