With his head down, Steve Tchiengang nonchalantly ambles through a group of students on the sidewalk near Rand Hall. His trip is interesting to watch. And at 6 foot 9 inches, it’s hard to miss, too. With a few graceful strides, he’s through the pack and well on his way to Memorial Gym.
Tchiengang, pronounced “CHEEN-gang,” doesn’t seem to mind—or even notice—the stares and hand-cupped whispers of those in his wake. These faux pas are surely forgivable. The man is literally heads and shoulders above them, so who could resist a quick “Did you see that guy?”
What would be unforgivable would be for anyone to conclude that the obvious defines Steve Tchiengang: that he’s a basketball player in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference heading to the gym—a power forward with hands like catcher’s mitts and hickory stilts for legs made for pushing opponents out from the paint and away from the basket. All of this, of course, is true. Tchiengang has amassed 162 rebounds during his first two years at Vanderbilt, has blocked his share of shots, and has surprising shooting accuracy for a man his size. But his performance on the elevated hardwood of Ingram Court only begins to describe who he is as a person.
This is a man defined by his love for, and devotion to, family. Make that “families”—one in Houston and one in Cameroon, a country on the west coast of central Africa. One he is related to by blood, and one he met the day he moved to the United States in October 2004. One he said goodbye to in search of an education that might one day lift his family from poverty, and one is economically stable and generous with their blessings.
Tchiengang’s native tongue is French—not surprising given that his region of Cameroon was under French control from the conclusion of World War I to 1960. He also speaks Spanish, which provided little help when he first met the family he would soon join: Tchiengang didn’t speak a word of English.
“When I got off the plane in Houston, I didn’t even know them—we had never met,” he says, his French accent still prominent. “Now I call them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’”
David Ambrose, Tchiengang’s adoptive father, says he learned something important about Steve’s character the day he arrived from Cameroon. “We quickly figured out that he has a heart for other people. He only brought one change of clothes. Everything else in his backpack was gifts for us.”
Tchiengang’s new life was beginning in a house of benevolent strangers. There was running water, electricity, and a refrigerator full of food. There were carpeted floors, and central heat and air conditioning. “The second night with us he told us, ‘I feel like I’m a king,’” remembers Ambrose. “He had never slept on a bed before.”
With the help of Michael, the youngest member of his adoptive family, Tchiengang learned English. And he played organized—“structured,” as he called it—basketball for the first time when he suited up for Cypress Christian School. His previous basketball experience in Africa was recreational. It was physical, had few rules, and offered little room for strategies that define the Western game.
“My freshman year in high school was a learning experience,” he says. “I had to rewire my thought processes.”
After three successful years at Cypress Christian, Tchiengang transferred to Montverde Academy, a boarding school in Florida where he could further develop his basketball skills. It worked. Several Division I schools recruited him, including Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Georgia Tech and Baylor, where his adoptive parents attended and where three of his adoptive siblings are currently enrolled.
“My Houston family went to Baylor; they all went to Baylor,” he says over lunch at Rand Hall. “They’re Bears all the way through. But they always told me, ‘Go to where your heart is calling you.’ And my heart called me to Vanderbilt.”
Today, Tchiengang’s life appears to be balanced, although he says he misses his family in Africa. But he’s dealing with it much more effectively than he did shortly after his arrival in the U.S., when the influx of blessings also brought pangs of guilt.
“Some days I would not eat, knowing that my family back home often had nothing to eat. I wanted to share the difficulty they were enduring,” he says. “It wasn’t smart, but my family means so much to me.”
There is a pause in the conversation as he pokes one of two grilled chicken breasts with his fork. “The chicken on my plate would feed my entire family in Africa,” he says. “Maybe twice.”
And this is precisely what motivates Tchiengang. His goal, he says, is to lift his African family from poverty, whether it’s by playing basketball or through a “normal job.”
It doesn’t surprise his adoptive family that Tchiengang takes this responsibility upon himself. He already works in Nashville with school-aged refugees from Africa by helping them assimilate into their new community. “Most of [the refugees] don’t speak English,” he says. “I tell them that they have to learn because they have to go to college.”
He’s also been known to dip into his own pocket for those less fortunate.
“Most kids are self-centered and self-focused at that age,” says Ambrose. “But Steve has a very big heart. My wife and I are more proud of that than anything he can do on the basketball court.”
Tchiengang’s parents in Africa know little about his day-to-day life. He hasn’t returned home since arriving in the U.S. six years ago.
“I haven’t seen my family in Africa in a long time, but it’s for the right reasons,” he says. “Helping my family has always been my focus. I want to be successful so I can give them relief from their hardships.”
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Steve Green, John Russell
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