Jonathan Kukapa and Anthony Ugorji are teammates, roommates and best friends. They also embody Longwood University’s commitment to providing an education—and opportunity for a better life—to those who need it most.
Both seniors were born in Africa, originally spoke a language other than English, are forwards on Longwood’s soccer team and hope to play professional soccer. Despite some differences in their respective lives, each immigrated to this country due to his family’s desire for greater opportunities.
Both are on track to graduate in four years, which for Kukapa is especially impressive. Immigrating at age 18 in 2009, he struggled learning English in an American high school and, with a still unpolished command of English, had difficulty adjusting to college upon entering Longwood two years later. He was on academic probation with a 1.6 GPA his freshman year. By the fall semester of his junior year, his GPA was over 3.0.
"I have a burning desire to do well in school and to be a good athlete. I’m focused," said Kukapa, a political science major with a psychology minor, who has taken summer school classes every year so he can finish in four years. "I made a commitment to graduate on time, and I just cannot fail."
The native French speaker grew up in Kinshasha, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire. He attended high school in Clarksburg, Md., and now lives in Leesburg, Va.
Ugorji, a physics major, hails from the Nigerian capital of Lagos, where his first language was Igbo. After his mother landed a nursing job in the United States, he immigrated in 2001, at age 7, to Washington, D.C., where he still lives.
Both Ugorji and Kukapa are serious, humble student-athletes who eschew wild parties. "They exemplify what college athletics and the opportunities it offers to certain students are all about," said Maya Ozery, assistant athletics director for academic and leadership development.
"Seeing them mature in the last four years has been motivational and inspirational for other students. They’ve made an impact by being who they are. They have become leaders by example."
Kukapa, the oldest of four children, has always been driven by a desire to not let his parents or siblings down. "If I succeed, it’s not just me. It’s 500 people behind me. My success affects a lot of people. My mom works two jobs, so I can’t be partying knowing she’s working hard."
Kukapa’s grades started to improve after switching his major from psychology to political science.
"I prefer critical thinking to memorizing facts," he said. "It took me a while to figure out my strength. My freshman year, I was trying but couldn’t find the right chemistry, the perfect balance. When I first came here, I was still struggling with the language. Even though I write in English, my thought process is still in French. Only in the last year have I become comfortable with English."
Early on at Longwood, Kukapa was also hampered by an unwillingness to ask for academic help, said his coach, Jon Atkinson.
"He has a lot of pride and feels like he’s representing his family," said Atkinson. "He didn’t want to let anybody down, so he wouldn’t admit he needed help. There were some cultural sensitivities. He struggled mightily his freshman year. We made him knuckle down."
Ugorji has had less of a struggle academically—even though his major is one of the most difficult offered at Longwood: physics.
Ugorji is currently hampered by a knee injury and has been able to play only one game this season. "I’m not able to do any sharp cutting, any sharp movements, and that’s what my game is built on. This injury is frustrating," he said.
Ugorji wants to always remain close to the sport. "I love the game, and I want to be around the game, coaching or managing a club. I want to give others the opportunities I had."
Kukapa plans to pursue a career in "international relations, possibly with the United Nations or Save the Children, or maybe working for an embassy or in politics. But none of that will happen until I hang up my [soccer] boots." Last summer he completed an internship in an office of Maryland gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown.
Both Ugorji and Kukapa played last summer for the D.C. United U-23 team, a club affiliated with one of the most successful Major League Soccer franchises. The squad, composed of college players, plays in the upper-age portion of the club’s extensive development academy.
"They became best friends, but they constantly argue. It’s like a marriage," Atkinson said with a laugh. "They’re both great guys. They have gone through this walk together, and it looks like they’ll finish this walk together."