By NATHAN ANDERSON | Norfolk Daily News
The story of Tina and Cedric Biteghe Bi Ndong is one about opportunity. For it’s opportunity that brought them both to West Point, and each other.
Tina was born in Anthon, Iowa, population 500. But she wasn’t there long, only 7 years old when her family moved.
“I moved to Pender, and the population was 1,300, and I thought, ‘I’m going big time,’” she said with a laugh, as is often the case.
She graduated from Pender High School and married young. The relationship with her former husband brought her to West Point, where his family lived.
“We have 3,400 people, and it’s like, ‘You know, this is big enough for me. I’m done,’” she said, laughing again.
Tina’s young marriage would end, but in West Point she seized her opportunities to thrive.
She began working at St. Joseph’s Retirement Community, which is part of the Franciscan Care Services organization. People there took a chance on her, despite her young age, and she ran with it.
“I was only 20 years old, and I got promoted to be a department head,” Tina said, smiling. “So it gave me leadership experiences … which just kind of led me from one career move to the next.”
She would ultimately start at the West Point Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 15, 2006. That same day, the Tyson Foods plant closed. It employed nearly 300 people, and the shutdown was devastating to the town.
“That was my first day; it was crazy,” she said. “Everybody just thought that that was going to be doomsday for us.”
But it wasn’t.
It became an opportunity for West Point, as well as for Tina. Her efforts to help the community adjust resulted in her being promoted to executive director of the chamber one year later.
Meanwhile, Cedric Biteghe Bi Ndong’s (pronounced Bi-tay-gay Bin-dong) story begins in Gabon, Africa, about 7,200 miles from West Point. Its land mass is about Colorado’s size, with a population of 1.9 million people.
The country’s political unrest was too much for Cedric. And with an entrepreneurial mindset, he was hungry for success and education. It motivated him to take a leap of faith and move to the U.S. looking for opportunity.
He arrived in New York City in December 2007. But he quickly thought it was a mistake.
“My first day in New York City — I had clothes, but I felt like I didn’t have clothes — it was really cold. That was the wrong time to come over,” he said with a smile.
Cedric is soft-spoken and tells his story with ease, and he does so with a slight French accent. Nearly 80 percent of those in Gabon speak French, especially in the capital of Libreville, where he is from.
He arrived in the U.S. on an education visa to attend the University of Oklahoma. But he quickly realized that the the country was expensive, and beyond that, he had trouble adjusting to the culture.
Cedric would find himself traveling back and forth to various places, always looking for the right spot and the best opportunities. He finally settled in Omaha among the Gabonese population there.
But he didn’t want to stay — it didn’t feel right, he said. The Gabonese population there was concentrated in its neighborhood, and there was always a sense of competition among them, he added.
“Sometimes it feels like a way for people to monitor what you do,” he said, rubbing his hands together as he spoke. “You just feel like a fresh start.”
At the time, Cedric lived with his cousin — by marriage — and his family. He babysat for them and continued his school work part time.
But then he had a moment of realization.
“I spent two years this way, and I was like, ‘I want to be like this, why am I watching his children?’ ” Cedric asked aloud.
He wanted another new start; he wanted a family of his own. He would ultimately find both in West Point.
Cedric and Tina found each other online, using the eHarmony dating app. Both were hesitant to talk about that story at first but overcame any shyness when remembering their first date.
The evening started out rocky. Tina was running five to 10 minutes late, and she messaged Cedric so he knew to wait. When she arrived at the Westroads mall in Omaha, he wasn’t anywhere to be found. So she waited for what seemed like an eternity.
“I’m overweight and I thought he just saw me and didn’t care,” she said.
But she messaged him, and he called back.
“I’m talking on the phone with him and I turn around, and there he is, and he’s everything I thought he was going to be,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
As it turns out, when she messaged Cedric that she was running late, he misunderstood. When someone in Gabon says they’re running a bit late, that could mean up to two hours, Tina said. He hadn’t bailed on the date, he was simply on “African time,” she said.
“It was a little stressful for those first 20 minutes,” Tina said with a laugh, tears still in her eyes. “But it was kind of an amazing night.”
Tina knew after that first date that they were going to marry each other and start a family. They, indeed, married in 2011 and now have two children.
Cedric now has an associate’s degree in accounting and is enrolled at Peru State College. He wants to become a certified public accountant and operate his own practice.
They’re both content in West Point — especially Cedric, who finally feels at peace.
“West Point …” he said, thinking. “They’re just good, hard-working people. It feels like home.”