As a child growing up in countries in Africa and the Caribbean, Dumbi Mabiala easily mastered several languages but struggled with a shyness that made it difficult for her to make eye contact with others.
The 21-year-old Parkville resident says she got over her anxiety by sheer force of will, and tomorrow Mabiala will stand in front of classmates, family and friends to deliver this year's commencement address for the Community College of Baltimore County.
"I'm glad after all these years I overcame that shyness," said Mabiala, who earned an associate degree in business administration. "I wasn't made to be shy. I need to have a voice."
It was Mabiala's voice - and her experience and her message - that stood out for members of the selection committee searching for this year's graduation speaker, said Rashida Govan, a CCBC student life director and member of the committee.
Of the more than 1,900 graduates from CCBC's three campuses and two satellite learning centers, more than 500 are expected to participate in this year's ceremony at Towson University's Towson Center, according to a college official.
"Dumbi's speech is really very relevant to what we're trying to communicate to our students about giving back to the community," Govan said. Mabiala, who was involved in several campus activities, also represented the diversity of people and ideas at the institution, Govan said.
In her speech, Mabiala, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa, said she plans to talk about her generation's tendency to be "bench warmers."
"I think we lost the ability to serve. We always expect something in return," she said.
She said she wants to encourage other graduates not to "wait for opportunities to come on their plate. Just step out and meet those opportunities."
This year marks the second in a row that CCBC officials, armed with surveys that showed graduates preferred to hear from one of their own, opted for a student speaker rather than an official or a dignitary, to deliver the graduation's main message, said Hope Davis, a college spokeswoman.
Mabiala, a 2003 Parkville High School graduate who has also lived in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Togo, was one of four finalists who competed for the opportunity to speak at this year's ceremony, Govan said.
Mabiala, who said she speaks at least five languages fluently, traveled all over the world as a result of her father's work with humanitarian organizations. She moved to the United States with her family in late 2001.
As a student at CCBC's Essex campus, she served in the student government and was involved in the Christian Club and the International Student Association. She also worked in the International Students Office, guiding students like herself.
"She has this way of creating bridges," said Karen McKenney, director of International Students at Essex. "She has this innate ability to communicate with people no matter where they're from."
McKenney said she nominated Mabiala as commencement speaker only after making certain that the young woman, who finished her course work at CCBC in December and has since transferred her credits to Towson University, planned to participate in this spring's graduation.
Mabiala said she couldn't miss the opportunity.
"I like to see my growth. To me, walking on the stage was closing a chapter," she said.
As for her future, she said she plans to continue her studies in Towson University's business program and, ultimately, to own several worldwide businesses and travel around the globe meeting people.
Her goal, she said, is to "die empty."
"At the end of life, I didn't hold anything back from the world," she said. "Everything I have is in the world. It's deeper than a legacy."