Holy Cross Driver, Student Bond Over Quest for U.S. Citizenship

Unexpected friendship develops over long round-trip rides

Josephine Kalondji '23 applied for U.S. citizenship a few weeks before she arrived at Holy Cross in August 2019, but she didn't consider one important detail.

"I had not thought about how I would make it to my appointments," says the mathematics major from Dallas. The three appointments, which consisted of biometric data collection and an oral test, were scheduled to be held at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Application Support Center in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a two-hour roundtrip from Mount St. James.

Kalondji explored the option of taking a train followed by a taxi or Uber, but says she was relieved when Matthew Eggemeier, associate professor of religious studies and dean of the Class of 2023, helped her arrange rides through the College’s transportation department.

One early November morning, she found herself waiting outside Hogan Campus Center for a Holy Cross van to pick her up and take her to her first appointment. "I was so nervous," says Kalondji who, along with her family, left the Congo to begin a new life in Mozambique before emigrating to the United States at age 12.

"I didn’t know what to expect," she says. "All I wanted to do was my homework and take a nap, but as soon as I got into the van, he started talking to me — which I actually truly appreciated."

"He" was Tony Alfama, one of the College's part-time drivers. "He started talking about himself and his relationship with other students, and it made me feel so welcomed and grateful to have somebody there," Kalondji remembers with a smile.

"When I first met her, she was nervous and standoffish, as most students are since they don’t know us from Adam. But after a little while, she loosened up," says Alfama, who has worked at Holy Cross for seven years. "Our job is to make students feel more comfortable first and then try to help them out. I try to be a sounding board and give them good advice. If they're down, I tell them things not to worry, things will get better."

"Students will open up with a driver more than their own parents sometimes," notes Jerry Maday, transportation manager, "so it's a good opportunity for drivers to share their wisdom and life experience."

"Every single appointment I had was at least an hour away," Kalondji notes. "Tony would drive me there, wait for me and then take me back. Sometimes he would offer to buy food for me, just knowing how long these appointments were. On the drive he would talk about the benefits of being American. He would comfort me and tell me, 'It's worth it, you can do this!' And 'I'm here next to you!'"

Alfama drove Kalondji to all of her Lawrence appointments and would be the first person to greet her after she took her oath of citizenship in February 2020. "[He] offered to be present at my ceremony, which was very meaningful to me because I learned so much from him," she says.

"The day Josephine got her citizenship, she was a nervous wreck," Alfama chuckles. "I told her to relax: 'This is the greatest day of your life—you’re becoming a citizen!'" As the grandson of immigrants from Portugal and Italy, and a Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran, Alfama has an appreciation for Kalondji's accomplishment: "I kept reinforcing that it's going to be a great future for her in the greatest country."

Kalondji took her oath of citizenship inside a large Lawrence auditorium with hundreds of other new U.S. citizens. Although her family was back in Texas, Kalondji wasn’t alone: "I couldn't see Tony, but he clapped for me. I didn't feel anything until he came up to me and said 'Congratulations! You're now an American!' Seeing him tell me made me feel the significance of what I had accomplished. I was truly grateful that I had this person who had dedicated all his time to help me."

In late 2020, Maday received an email from Kalondji sharing the impact Alfama had on his passenger. "I will never forget him," wrote Kalondji, who noted she voted in her first U.S. election in November 2020. "Never!"

Maday notes it wasn't the first time he had received such positive feedback on the College's drivers. He recalls the time a professor approached him to share that his student had written about a driver in an assignment focusing on the person who had impacted them most at Holy Cross. Notes Maday of his staff: "We practice the Jesuit principles of putting other people first and being a person for and with others."

Written by Daniella Vollinger for the Spring 2021 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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