Ugandan Refugee Finds a Home at Cypress College Feature Story

February 27, 2024
Isaac Samba

Eight years ago, Isaac Samba was forced to leave his home country of Uganda and request protection from the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya. He spent six years as an exiled asylum seeker, maneuvering through the complicated and rigorous refugee process. All Isaac wanted was a place to feel safe and call home, but what he found was so much more.

After being granted asylum in California, Isaac set his sights on improving his career options and education. Despite having certifications in computer science and information technology from the prestigious Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, Isaac found the community college application process confusing and frustrating.

“If I had trouble, what about someone who doesn’t know computers or doesn’t speak English well?” said Isaac, 29, who would still rather not talk about his journey from Kampala where his mother and one sister still reside.

Initially, Rick Foster, a refugee advocate and Cypress College alumnus, had been the one to encourage Samba to enroll at Cypress. Because of Samba’s initial difficulties, Foster decided to submit an assistance request on the Future Built website, which provides a concierge service to support students and employers looking to connect with Orange County’s community colleges. Dr. Gustavo Chamorro responded immediately.

“Gustavo immediately looped in the relevant teams at Cypress in Financial Aid and Admissions & Records to try and resolve the situation quickly,” says Foster. “Best of all, he remained engaged in trying to resolve the enrollment challenges.”

As always, Gustavo, the former Orange County Director of Los Angeles/Orange County Regional Consortium (now Orange County Regional Consortium), and now founder and president of Education Advance and Workforce Services, LLC, played an instrumental role in bridging the communication gap between parties.

“As a newcomer refugee navigating an unfamiliar system, Isaac faced particular struggles that Gustavo’s guidance helped mitigate,” says Foster. “I appreciated Gustavo’s patient, solutions-oriented approach throughout this process.”

Once the proper connections had been made, Cypress’s support teams stepped in. When Isaac couldn’t access the college’s myGateway application, Cypress student Didier Love provided much-needed guidance. Didier is part of a team of student ambassadors who work in Cypress’s Welcome Center and assist students with applying, registering for classes, and more.

“He was very helpful,” said Isaac. “We went through the application, and he showed me how to access information, like the financial aid page.”

Isaac explained that the people who create these applications often assume applicants know how to find things and understand the meaning of terms in the application’s navigation. But that’s not necessarily true, especially for people from other countries. For Isaac, overcoming these obstacles meant the difference between building a future or losing hope.

For example, when Isaac didn’t receive his tuition bill, he worried about being dropped from Cypress for good. In his home country, tuition is something students pay before classes start. Didier assured him that he had time and would get the tuition bill once his financial aid status was determined.

“Hearing it from someone at the college put him at ease,” Foster recounted. “It is people like Didier who make the student journey easier.”

“Seeing the impact I, as an individual, can have on another human being’s life makes me incredibly grateful,” says Didier, who enjoys working to make new students feel part of the Cypress community. “I treat every human being with respect across the board. I try to be a good example to the young people I am surrounded by. It’s an attempt to be the best me I can be.”

For Isaac, a self-described “shy guy,” being in a new place surrounded by new people was intimidating.

“I am always nervous. It is my nature,” explains Isaac. “I am a black person and I come from a black nation. In my class, I am the only black person, so sometimes that can make you nervous.”

But Isaac’s concerns quickly faded. His fellow students were kind and willing to answer his other questions. In turn, he tried to give back by sharing his knowledge about computers.

As a child, Isaac had a passion for technology that started with radios and eventually led to computers. 

“I destroyed my mom’s radio, disassembling and assembling it, trying to learn how it worked,” he says with a hearty laugh.

By the time he was a teen, he purchased his first used computer on a layaway plan, making small payments when he had the money until he had paid it off.

Isaac has always been a hard worker and now that he’s a student at Cypress, he’s taking advantage of every opportunity that comes his way.

“I think most people have problems with computers,” he said. “They can’t fix minor things. I can help with that. We all have a big issue with cyber scammers. One day, I want to help people fight that.”

To those who want to attend college but might be intimidated, Isaac says, “Go for it!”

“If you go to a new place, you always get afraid, but in a few weeks, you’re fine. There are always people to help you.”

And nowhere is that truer than at Cypress College and on the Future Built website.