Ngone Seck, a first-generation college student from Florissant who received a full scholarship to Washington University, is smiling bigger after getting her teeth fixed. But the long hours she spent working toward that goal have taken a toll.
After St. Louisans learned that her dental problems and heavy work schedule made college a struggle, dozens reached out to the Italian immigrant of West African heritage.
Some offered money, others free dental services. Seck took a Ladue dental clinic up on its offer of treatment and surgery, and completed the work this spring.
But after falling behind in her classes, Seck took a leave of absence from Wash U. Although she’s disappointed, Seck retains her full scholarship.
“It was just too late to patch things up,” Seck said. “But I can get a fresh start in the fall.”
‘Nearly Wanted To Cry’
When Seck arrived at Washington University last fall her future looked bright. But the engineering major was suffering from seven years’ worth of untreated dental decay. She worked as many as 60 hours a week at Panda Express in St. Ann to pay for treatment and help her family.
Thanks to the dental work, for the first time in seven years, Seck no longer suffers toothaches or worries about infection from rampant decay. She’s thankful for the oral surgeon and dentist who performed two root canals and filled 15 teeth — at no cost.
“I'm so happy,” Seck said. “I honestly just couldn't express how grateful I am.”
A cardiologist who connected Seck with her dental care recently invited her to his home to enjoy a steak dinner.
“I just nearly wanted to cry,” Seck said. “It’s the first steak I’ve had in a very long time — pain-free, struggle-free; I didn't have to chew with my front teeth.”
Until she returns to school, she’s working overtime as a Panda Express shift manager. With $3,000 from donors, Seck bought a 2008 Chevy Impala so she no longer depends on a series of buses and MetroLink trains to get to work.
“It’s just been a great relief because I feel safer and more mobile, being able to get from place to place,” Seck said.
‘She’s That Brilliant’
More than half the money came from the Italian Community of St. Louis, which helps local Italian citizens. Impressed with Seck’s work ethic, determination and courage, group president Michael Cross contacted her on Facebook.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’” Cross said. “‘Can we do anything for you?’”
Cross said Seck quickly responded and the group launched a crowdfunding campaign, then invited her to accept the check at an event in her honor.
“It really took me back home, being around so many from the country I was born and raised in, the culture, the food, speaking Italian to everyone,” Seck said.
Seck needs that sense of home now more than ever. She’s distanced herself from her parents, although not her three little sisters. After spending her adolescence as the family translator and taking care of many of her parents’ needs, she feels she needs to take care of herself.
Seck is looking forward to resuming classes at Wash U, and is already planning her schedule around a shorter work week.
The break from school will only serve to refocus Seck’s determination, said her Riverview Gardens High School mentor, band director Harvey Lockhart.
“We’re going to be talking about her. She’s going to be somebody that the world is going to know of, not just the United States,” Lockhart said. “She’s that brilliant, that special.”
Even out of school, Seck has learned an important lesson.
“Maybe it's not so bad to ask for help,” Seck said. “I, myself, love to help but for some reason it didn't hit me that some other people might love to help me also.”
Seck hopes to graduate with her Wash U class in 2022. Sometimes, she can barely believe how lucky she feels.
“Things have been looking so much brighter, that it’s almost scary,” Seck said.
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
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