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York College Student Chooses Between an American Education and a Tribal Chiefdom

January 30, 2023
Lovell Bangura with his mother

Lovell Bangura ’25 was born in the United States but grew up in Sierra Leone, where his grandmother was the chief of his village.

Shortly after turning 16, Lovell Bangura ’25 was asked by his grandmother to consider a decision that would impact his future. She and tribal leaders in Sierra Leone wanted him to take over as chief of their village, a hereditary position throughout the West African country’s districts and provinces that oversees traditional culture and local justice. The province is called Makeni, and it is the fifth largest city in Sierra Leone by population.

“I was very young,” Lovell says. “I don’t think they’ve ever selected somebody at such a young age to be king.”

Lovell was different from his siblings. The sixth of seven children, he was the only one born in the United States. He returned to his ancestral country when he was two to be raised by his chieftain grandmother, leaving his mother in the U.S. He often found himself spending time with the older members of his community, learning from their wisdom and traditions.

A big decision

Over the next 17 years, Lovell immersed himself in Sierra Leone culture and community. Then, in 2017, he was faced with that difficult decision: remain in Sierra Leone and prepare to step into the role of chief or return to the U.S., reconnect with his mother, and pursue an American education.

“I came back to America because I didn’t know much about my mom,” Lovell says.

In 2019, while in high school in Philadelphia, Lovell saw an advertisement for York College on YouTube and Instagram.

“I did research and thought it could be a good school for me,” he says. “I called the school and they set me up with everything.”

Finding his place

Lovell became the first member of his family to enroll in higher education. Being a first-generation college student with a background very different from that of most of his peers was difficult at first.

“My first semester when I got here, I didn’t feel like I fit in with all the people,” Lovell says. “I was struggling to make new friends. I would just keep to myself and try not to talk to anybody.”

Then Lovell connected with York College Counseling Services. With the staff’s encouragement, he began making friends and exploring the community around the College.

“Now I find it easier to connect with people,” he says. “As long as I see them, I’ll at least say hi and ask how their day is going.”

Even on his low days, Lovell connects with friends who check in on him and encourage him.

The college experience also has helped Lovell become more independent. He started living on his own for the first time.

“It really changed my life,” he says of attending York College. “It helped me become the man I am today.”

Be yourself

Lovell isn’t sure whether he’ll remain in the United States after graduation or return to Sierra Leone to step into the role of village chief. He is torn between the person he has become and what he would have become had he stayed in Africa.

Whatever direction he chooses, he knows that the lessons he’s learned at York College will go with him. He encourages students to be themselves and connect with others, even when it’s uncomfortable.

“Life is all about being together and getting to know people,” he says.