This month, one of the big news stories is about parents who bribed and cheated to get their kids into prestigious universities.
And then there’s the college admissions story of John Awiel Chol Diing.
Diing, 25, is a former refugee from South Sudan and grew up in U.N.-supported camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. His family couldn’t even afford high school fees, let alone college tuition.
But today, thanks to an unlikely series of events, he is a student at Earth University in Costa Rica, finishing up his fourth year studying agricultural science.
Diing, who is tall, lean and soft-spoken, was in Washington, D.C., this week for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs‘ Global Food Security Symposium. He was there to network with policymakers in his field, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the World Bank.
Diing talked to NPR about his grandmother’s advice (and mattress) — and how two scholarships changed his life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you were 4 years old, in 1997, your family fled the civil war in South Sudan. What was it like going to school at a refugee camp?
When I was a young boy, there was only one textbook — the one the teacher used to teach the class. We learned underneath a tree. We used the dirt on the ground as a chalkboard. Still, I was always in the top of my class.
And what was life like at the camp?
I was occasionally forced to go to school late or missed school because I was delayed fetching water. Lack of potable water at the Kakuma camp in Kenya made life very unbearable. I couldn’t count the times we slept without food because there was no water to cook.
Despite this hardship, you were able to do well in school. Why is that?
I think because of my background, what I’ve gone through as a refugee. I needed something to change my life. And I felt that education was the only way to do it — this was the advice given to me by my grandmother Mary.
Were you very close to your grandmother?
She was the only one who was taking care of me at [Kakuma] camp. In 2005, my mother and sisters left and went back to South Sudan. [His father had stayed in the country because he was in the military.] My grandmother was too old to make the journey so stayed behind. I decided to stay with her at the camp and finish my schooling.
In 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then in 2007, when I was 14, she died. She left me a mattress — the one that the hospital had given her. It was the first one I’d slept on in my life. Before, I was just sleeping on the ground of the hut.
And she also left me some advice: Continue going to school. She believed that my life would change if I could stick to it.
So this is a reason why I wanted to do well in school. It was the best thing I could do for her. Now I’m getting emotional.
You say that your background as a refugee helped motivate you in school. Any other motivations?
I guess I am a daydreamer. Every time I was at the camp, I realized that this is not the place I should be. I imagined doing something else, doing something great.
People see the camp as the end zone. Everyone is suffering from the same problem. You feel like you’re in a confined zone where all you see is frustration. People are hopeless. There’s nothing that motivates you to excel. What made me stand out was my own motivation.
Were you ever inspired by a book or a TV show or movie?
TV? There were no movies at the camp! From 2001 to 2007, we never owned a TV in my house. We didn’t even have lights!
You almost didn’t make it through high school.
In 2010, I moved in with my uncle in Nakuru [a town near his refugee camp in Kenya] and started going to the Kabiyet Boys High School. My father [who came briefly to the Kakuma camp in 2007 after the grandmother’s death] told me after the first year he couldn’t afford the $400 in school fees which covered pretty much everything — boarding, books. I stopped going to school.
Then someone told me one Friday, a few months after not being in school, that a group called Sudan Foundation was giving out scholarships. Testing for it was at a community hall that Sunday. I took a five-question math test for one hour, then there was a writing prompt. I wrote about how the scholarship was my last hope to finish my education. I was one of 15 students who won, and 200 applied. They paid for the rest of fees at Kabiyet.
I graduated in the top three in my class, excelling in biology, English and geography.
After you graduated, did you want to go to college?
I applied for universities like Arizona State, but I couldn’t complete it because I needed an SAT or a GRE — I had no idea what that was. And I tried applying to McGill University in Canada, but the internet stopped working before I could complete the online application.
So what did you do?
I volunteered at UNHCR as a translator, and I worked as an elementary school teacher for about $60 a month. I had to go to a bank to get this money.
And that’s where you found out about an opportunity.
Yes. One time when I was at the bank, there was a TV showing a program called Wings To Fly from the MasterCard Foundation. They pick students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to get scholarships and study abroad.
On TV, they had this story of this one guy who did well in high school but came from a poor area in Kenya. And I said: This guy has my same story!
So I applied and got the scholarship to go to Earth Institute in Costa Rica.
What do you hope to do after college?
My passion is to work with refugees. When I was in the camp, I felt that people who worked in NGOs and refugee camps never got us. They don’t understand our stories. I can help them because I can relate to them.
For example, when our family first arrived to the refugee camp, the camp workers did not give us our correct date of birth. They gave us all “January 1.” This made it difficult for me to correct my papers later in life. They did not treat us with dignity.
If I get a job to return to my refugee camp or any one, I will take it.
In the U.S., we’re reading news stories about wealthy families who cheated and bribed to get their children accepted in prestigious schools. How do you feel about that?
Frustrated. We depend on a just [system]. It means that people like me — we have to struggle harder. It breaks my heart.
Is this your first visit to the U.S.?
I was telling a friend yesterday, the first time I came to the States was in 2016. When I was 16, I remember telling a friend that I wanted to go to the Empire State Building in New York one day. Four years later, I had the chance to climb it. And I cried.