International business major Louise Barro ’23 is warm and soft-spoken in conversation in a way that instantly puts you at ease. Every sentence is tinged with a quiet humor and sense of wonder, as if she’s constantly amazed at the world around her — and overjoyed with its idiosyncrasies.
But beneath that simple kindness and empathy is a will of iron. Barro has led a life of exploration that has taken her all over the world. She’s also triumphed over struggles that threatened to undo her. "Just like a Phoenix, you're going to have to burn along the way — to crash,” she told attendees during her presentation at this year’s TEDxBryantU conference — yet another victory for someone who insists she’s not a very strong speaker. (She’s wrong about that, by the way.) “You're going to meet a lot of roadblocks but, if you focus on your goal, you'll be able to rise from the ashes in a new vibrant form."
Building a better person
For someone who has called three continents home, Barro treats her ventures and accomplishments as routine steps on a trip marked, at points, with difficulty but always in service of a larger plan. “I always knew that in order to be the best version of myself, I needed to educate myself beyond my home country, and even beyond my own experiences,” she says. “I've always wanted to be someone who has the most information possible, so that I can use it to do the right thing and help others.”
At the age of 14, Barro convinced her parents to allow her to leave her home in Port-Gentil, Gabon — by herself — and attend Dakar Academy in Senegal so she could learn English. “I knew even then that I eventually wanted to attend school in America,” she says. “From a very early age, I always wanted to go abroad for my education and meet new people, and have opportunities to deepen my skills, discover new ones, and even discover new passions.
“I wanted to be the best version of myself and not have any limits on what I could be or do,” she says. “And I felt like, in America, the sky's the limit.”
But the road forward was not as easy as she would have hoped. Alone in Dakar, and thrown into a new environment with minimal considerations, Barro struggled in her classes and with her new language; and the headmaster even suggested she transfer.
“I am able to help students with issues I have struggled with myself, and that gives me a good feeling. And because we are able to relate to each other, I think it makes the process easier for them.”
Initially disheartened, she used the anger and pain she felt to redouble her efforts, creating her own glossary to improve her diction and religiously learning the lyrics to songs from Disney films, which helped her with her pronunciation. Like the phoenix, she rose from her lowest moment, became a class officer, joined sports teams, and even performed in the school play. Graduating from the academy that did not believe in her, she says, is now one of her proudest moments.
On the heels of that triumph, Barro took another big step by enrolling at Bryant University, despite having never even seen the school in person. She was drawn to the school’s International Business program, which would help her to continue to grow. “It gathered all of my interests, and it allows you to explore so many different areas and disciplines and go in so many different directions,” says Barro. “You can work anywhere in the world — in the entertainment industry, in sports, in healthcare industry — if you know the fundamentals of business and how to adapt.”
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She also chose Bryant for its small size and close-knit community. “I left my parents when I was 14, then I moved again at 18 to come to Bryant. So, in both of these instances, I didn't really have any family around me,” Barro says. “When you are in a new environment, by yourself, being in a community — and feeling like you're part of that community — is so very important.”
Forming new communities
Arriving on campus before Move-in Day, Barro took part in Bryant’s Multicultural and International Leadership Experience (4MILE) program, a cultural and leadership-focused orientation designed for incoming international and domestic multicultural students. Over a whirlwind five days, Barro and her fellow students learned about Bryant, the greater community, and resources for support. They also formed strong bonds and became a close cohort.
Barro was also introduced to the university’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which works to create a supportive and inclusive campus environment and has become like a second home for her. “I loved that I had this space full of like-minded people who would always support me and push me to always be the best version of myself,” she says.
Those resources, and that cohort, would be tested the second semester of her freshman year, when COVID-19 shut down the campus and students were forced to return home. Gabon’s borders were closed, however, so Barro had to live with a family friend. In a trying period, when she had to adapt to yet another new environment, isolation, and the pressures of a global pandemic, Barro says her Bryant community provided invaluable support.
"When you're able to meet someone from another country, you can learn so much, but you can also see the sparkle in their eye because they are sharing something of who they are and what is important to them — and they see it in your eyes when you do the same."
“We used to have these Zoom meetings,” she remembers, sessions run by Kaoru Paganelli, assistant director of the Offices of International Students and Scholars (OISS), and Emily Collins Garcia, Bryant’s assistant director of International Student Integration. “They used to have them every week with international students, and those were times where we were able to ask them any questions we had, or for any updates. And they would take it upon themselves to reassure us, to make sure we were supported, and to make sure we were ok.”
It was Paganelli and Collins Garcia — still her mentors to this day — who gave Barro a chance to make that difference for others that very same semester. “They offered me a position during a time that was very difficult, and they knew I was away from my family,” Barro remembers. As an OISS assistant office manager, she helps international students with their visas and other concerns and organizes educational events. “I am able to help students with issues I have struggled with myself, and that gives me a good feeling. And because we are able to relate to each other, I think it makes the process easier for them.”
Honing an international mindset
When Barro returned to campus her sophomore year, she dove deep into her International Business education and found it as enthralling as she had hoped. Known for its rigor amongst Bryant students, the IB program has not always been easy, Barro admits. “It can be humbling, because you are reminded that there is so much that you don’t know,” she says. “But what's good about humbling experiences is that they teach you so much if you are willing to take a step back, accept them, and use them as an opportunity to grow.”
She points to the Business Strategy Game (BSG) competition, in which teams of Bryant IB majors shepherd their own virtual shoe companies through a complex simulation that challenges them at every turn. Barro’s team finished out of contention in the competition, a rare defeat for her. And while she admits with a laugh that it still stings, she still found the experience invaluable. “One of the things I was most excited about with Bryant and the American system of learning was the focus on practice,” she says. “It was not just about learning theory, it was about learning the practical aspect of things, and how to actually do the things we had learned about.”
During her junior year, Barro, who is minoring in Spanish, spent a semester abroad studying at Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Sevilla, Spain. "I loved the experience," she admits gleefully, still barely able to contain her joy a year later. When she describes the trip, experiences pour out of her, from visiting Maria Louisa Park to walking the streets of Madrid. But her favorite part, she says, was interacting with the people she met.
“To be who you’re meant to be is about taking the big steps that you might be afraid to take.”
"When you're able to meet someone from another country, you can learn so much, but you can also see the sparkle in their eye because they are sharing something of who they are and what is important to them — and they see it in your eyes when you do the same,” says Barro. “I love that so much, and to be able to connect with people on that level. There's so much joy in it."
Putting it all together
Barro has made it her mission to help the Bryant community have that very same experience. As the director of Black enterprise for the university’s Multicultural Student Union (MSU), the Chair of African Countries for its International Student Organization (ISO), and a member of Bryant’s Senior Advisory Council, she’s worked to create inclusive spaces where students can learn about other cultures and about one another — and to take the lead in addressing key issues. “We have the chance to amplify our voices on things that mean something to us,” she notes.
She’s especially proud of organizing a djembe drumming class through the ISO, which allowed her to share a part of her culture — and show off her own drumming skills— and helping to bring civil rights leaders like Bernice King and Ilyasah Shabazz to campus. “The discussions they are involved in are discussions we all should be having,” says Barro, who co-moderated a talk with Shabazz alongside her friend Alejandro Vaquerano ’23. “Bryant University is not a perfect place — no place is. But we are making progress, and I want to help drive that progress.”
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This spring, Barro’s journey came full circle in many ways when she spoke at TEDxBryantU. “I wanted to share my personal story and encourage people to start their own language journey, but I also wanted to help them to be more courageous, to be braver,” Barro says. “To be who you’re meant to be is about taking the big steps that you might be afraid to take.”
As she prepares for graduation, Barro — who will be honored for her accomplishments and good character with the University’s Roger W. Babson Award at Commencement — is thinking more and more about her own journey, and how she’s grateful for a university that’s matched her ambition. “I came to Bryant with stars in my eyes. I came here very hopeful and ready to conquer the world,” says Barro. “And now when I look back at my four years, I'm proud of what I’ve accomplished but I know that there is so much more to see and to learn.”