Mr. PresidentDec 31, 2020 11:19AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Appoquinimink High senior Ryan Nkongnyu, the national president of the Business Professionals of America (BPA), has a teary and triumphant genesis story about his involvement with the group.
“I was trying to figure my purpose in life – the potential in me,” he recalled. He was then an eighth-grader at Alfred G. Waters Middle, and his cousin, Princess Achobang, had suggested BPA.
Unfortunately on the day of the group’s welcome meeting, he had two other commitments, to help in the library and with a class. He tried to do all three, excusing himself from time to time for restroom breaks. Until he was in the printing room for the library and ran into BPA adviser Linda Prickett.
The gig was up.
He had applied to be a BPA officer, and when that didn’t happen, he started crying. How committed was he? A lot, it turns out, and Prickett recognized that by creating a fifth officer position for him.
And now, four years later, he’s president of a group of 45,000 students in 26 states.
Ryan is the latest in a stunning string of Delawareans to serve as national BPA leaders in its division for middle and high schools. Achobang, a 2017 William Penn graduate, was national secretary in 2017-18. David Woodside, a 2015 Appoquinimink graduate, was treasurer in 2015-16. Rachel Wagner, a 2015 Appoquinimink graduate, was president in 2014-15. Pencader Charter student Brian Kelleher was national treasurer in 2009-10 and national president in 2010-11.
“Through BPA I have gained the ability, knowledge and know-how to appropriately conduct myself in a professional setting while exceeding the expectations of those I am serving,” Kelleher told the Association for Career and Technical Education.
‘Faith and family, school and BPA’
Ryan was born in Cameroon, and he and his parents – Nicodemus Nchiko, a truck driver, and Mercy Ngenevu, a nurse – moved to Delaware in 2007. He has three siblings.
He has a busy life balancing his most important commitments: “faith and family, school and BPA.”
He attends St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church in Bear. “When you are planning for yourself, God is also planning for you,” he said. “Each year I grow and get better.”
At school, he is vice president for his class in student government and a member of the Black Student Union. And he runs hurdles.
BPA is known for its service projects, he said, and at Appoquinimink, the service has included volunteering at school events and work in the school store.
He said that determination and perseverance are two of his strongest traits, and he’s also passionate, driven and ambitious. His communication skills are backed up in multiple BPA speaking awards.
He’s also funny, active and adventurous, which is why his personal Instagram account is Kingryguy.
Agenda for the president’s year
“Ryan is absolutely amazing,” said Shawn Smith, the BPA adviser at Appoquinimink and Redding Middle. “Driven. A go-getter for what whatever he puts his mind to. People like Ryan give us hope that you’re making a difference. When I met him in ninth grade, I had visions of him in a national role.”
Ryan was elected national BPA president on May 20 in a virtual vote after coronavirus restrictions canceled the conference in Washington. He and his five fellow officers have set up an agenda for their yearlong term, which he said stresses advocacy, community-building and planning for the next conference, a hybrid or virtual one.
That agenda will also involve learning. “No matter your background, your skin color, whatever you are, you cannot be part of this organization without learning something,” he said.
So what’s Ryan’s purpose? “I haven’t really determined it yet,” he said, noting he’s thinking about colleges and majors. “It’s somewhere in service, because my joy is in helping others.”
He quoted from Denzel Washington’s 2015 commencement speech at Dillard University, titled “Put God First.” This excerpt gives context to the words that Ryan recited in the interview: “Anything you want good you can have, so claim it, work hard to get it. When you get it, reach back, pull someone else up, each one teach one. Don’t just aspire to make a living. Aspire to make a difference.”
Better me, better community
Princess Achobang encouraged her cousin Ryan to join BPA following her own years-long involvement. The 2017 William Penn alumna was national secretary in 2017-18, when she had started studies (a major in marketing, a minor in French) at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Achobang was an eighth grader when she was drawn to BPA by a “cool event with food,” but her interest quickly became serious. Early on BPA adviser Carolyn Smalls “pushed me to pursue a path of leadership,” she said. “And then I kept seeing how many doors BPA opened up for me.”
Achobang, who was born in Cameroon and moved to Delaware at age 8, also enjoyed the travel to give give keynote speeches and present workshops at leadership conferences all over the country.
When asked how the group has changed her, she began “Oh, man. So many ways.”
Then she added: “It gave me a place to give back to my community. It was a great platform to do good and be a better person. I’m better professionally, with all that training in time management, conflict resolution, strategizing and other soft skills you should learn when you’re young. And then there’s all those lifelong connections.”
She interned at Microsoft and has already been hired and so is planning her move to Seattle.
Competitions and camaraderie
2015 Appoquinimink High alumnus David Woodside was encouraged to join by BPA adviser Linda Prickett when he was a student at Alfred G. Waters Middle. He was a member for seven years, from seventh grade through his freshman year at Tulane University, when he was national treasurer.
“I grew up with it in my formative years. My friendships were built there,” he said. “I really enjoyed the competitive programs and the camaraderie. BPA taught me about leadership, working in teams, planning and organization and interpersonal skills. I learned all about professionalism while working on issues through BPA.”
Woodside is a Delaware native, and he earned his bachelor of science in business management and a bachelor of arts in political economy. He studied in France and Morocco, and he signed up for a two-year stint as a community and economic development volunteer in the Ukraine with the Peace Corps. Coronavirus guidelines sent him back home after less than a year, and at the time of the interview he was contemplating what he would do.
Another early commitment
Rachel Wagner was just 12 when she set her personal goal of becoming president of BPA, which has divisions involving middle and high schoolers and college students. “They were poised and polished,” she said after following a national officer. “They seemed to care.”
Wagner also believed strongly in what the BPA stands for: service to the community, skills preparation and mentoring relationships.
She recalls that she missed a month of so or school for all of her BPA meetings, speeches, conferences and other events as organization president. She had to to get approval for missing the time.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies and international relations from Christopher Newport University in Virginia and a master’s degree in government from the University of Toronto, where she’s now working on her doctorate in political theory and international relations.
She was another student inspired by Linda Prickett. “She embraced her lead role with Business Professionals of America, grooming students to be entrepreneurs and industry leaders,” her 2017 obituary read. “Her kids won honors across the country, and she reveled in escorting them to award ceremonies and boasting about their accomplishments.”
Through BPA, she improved her public speaking, confidence and leadership, and she also developed a network of mentors – almost all women. BPA “is a very large part of who I am,” she said.
All photos courtesy photos