From 'Lost boy' to Ph.D.: Doctoral student overcomes long odds on way to degree

Last modified: Friday, May 09, 2014
Amherst — Anyone who earns a doctorate knows hardship. And then there is James Alic Garang.

The journey that led him to accepting his doctoral degree Friday at the University of Massachusetts began when he learned the alphabet by writing letters in the dirt in a refugee camp after he fled war-torn Sudan.

As a practical matter, Garang has been working on his UMass degree for seven years, during which time he conducted field work in Kenya and South Sudan. He also met and married his wife, Maria Ayak, 27, had three children, Alic Benjamin Jr., 6, Adhot, 2, and Adut, 1. After arduous effort, and several other moves, he brought them here from Nairobi, Kenya, Dec. 5, 2012.

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That’s impressive, but the obstacles he surmounted before arriving on U.S. soil are harrowing. They include a 600-mile trek that took three months when he was around 10 (with no parents accompanying him) from his home in South Sudan to Ethiopia. There, he lived in a refugee camp where he feels lucky to have received an education. Classes were held outside, and later in grass-thatched, mud-wall classrooms. Initially lacking both textbooks and paper to write on, he learned the alphabet outlining letters using sticks in dirt.

But Garang does not dwell on the difficult parts of his story.

“We went through so many things, no matter how hard it is, I take it easy because I know tomorrow is brighter than today,” said Garang. He is a serious man, as his professors will attest, but when he smiles, his face lights up.

Garang is one of 10 people who this year will earn doctorates in economics at UMass. When he climbs onto the stage at the Mullins Center Friday morning, he may be thinking about the many people he feels indebted to for helping him along the way, a subject this humble man likes to talk about. He may also be thinking about his three children.

“Some time in life, they will see a picture of their dad accepting a degree,” said Garang, his 5-foot 9-inch frame sitting at a kitchen table covered with a bright yellow cloth in the small living room of his Sunderland apartment, while his children jump on a futon nearby. He said he hopes they take that image to heart, and think to themselves: “This is something to emulate.”

Starting journey

Garang believes his experience as a child and teenager in the civil war-ravaged Sudan instilled in him a determination that fortified him when separated from all things familiar.

“There are people who look up to me as a role model,” he said. This knowledge propels him forward.

“Once you start a journey, don’t look back until you finish it,” he said. “Half-baking is not an option.”

UMass professor of economics Leonce Ndikumana, one of Garang’s advisers, says there was nothing half-baked about his student’s work. When Garang proposed a dissertation that involved doing field work in two African countries, he worried it might be too ambitious a project — but it was not.

“For James, ‘no’ can never be an answer,” said Ndikumana. “If he wants to do something, he will do it. If it means trying six times, he will try six times.”

Ndikumana, who is himself a refugee, finds Garang and his accomplishments impressive.

“He’s the absolute example of what I would say is a resilient person,” said Ndikumana.

‘Lost Boys’

Garang, who believes he is around 39 (he doesn’t know the precise age, as there are no records), is part of a group of young men that has come to be known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” A term coined by international aid organizations, it refers to thousands of boys and young men who either were taken by force from their homes or who chose to leave their villages fearing they had no other recourse during the civil war that raged from 1983 to 2005.

Garang left his rural village, Ajok, of his own volition in 1987, at a time when violence was escalating. He and other young boys and men thought if they joined the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army they could help bring order to their country.

That trek took him through a desert for seven days, during which food and water were scarce, temperatures were unbearable, causing blisters and fatigue, and the travelers endured wild animal attacks.

Upon arriving at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, boys bigger and older than Garang began military training. Garang and younger boys like him enrolled in school.

Though conditions on the road and in the camps were harsh, he credits that time with giving him a deep belief in the value of an education that remains with him.

When he lived in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, visiting delegations from the United States and the United Nations decided to bring some of the refugees to the United States. Garang arrived in Utah on June 12, 2001, with 22 other Sudanese men. He lived with them in an apartment building, was assigned a social worker, worked several jobs, including at a convenience store and a cleaning company, and eventually enrolled in a community college. From there he went on to the University of Utah, where he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Encouraged by one of his professors, he applied to UMass for graduate school.

Thomas Maloney, chairman of the department of economics at the University of Utah, said the two years he worked with Garang were eye-opening for him as he learned firsthand about the conditions and politics in Sudan.

“It’s pretty amazing that a guy can come through the displacement he experienced and come to this remote place in Utah,” he said. Maloney said by the time he met Garang, he’d already decided to pursue higher education.

“He always seemed to have that in him,” said Maloney. “He wanted to gain expertise for the benefit of his community back home.”

On to UMass

The summer before Garang arrived on the Amherst campus in 2006, he made his first trip home in 19 years to visit his family and his village. On that trip, he met Maria Ayak, the woman he would marry. When he returned home the following summer for another extended stay, they married in June 2007.

Early in their marriage they lived apart. He missed the birth of their son, Alic (pronounced Aleesh) on April 25, 2008.

When he returned for a visit in 2009, meeting his son for the first time, “he was a grown up boy,” Garang laments with a smile that seems rueful, though with no trace of bitterness.

Garang lived for a time with a family at Pathways Cohousing in Northampton, bunking in a room in their basement as he saved money to bring his family here. That family, Lucy Garbus and David Slack and their three children, also helped Garang with raising the funds. They planned to be among his supporters at the graduation Friday.

Garang admits those years were stressful, and that he often felt he should be back at home with his young family. “My mind was in two worlds — that was a constant struggle in my mind and in my heart, missing the family,” he said. “The fact that I missed them and they missed me was eating at me.”

But he felt compelled to pursue his graduate education for many reasons, not least of which was to have something to offer back home, where there is virtually no economic infrastructure. And there was also the highly practical necessity of supporting his family: “I’m going to do something that will bring bread to the table,” he said.

After graduation

In the coming months, Garang plans to move his family to the Buffalo, New York, area where they have relatives. His wife, who is learning English at Greenfield Community College, says she is pleased to be in the United States with her husband. Garang is in the job market, and hopes to find work in his field that will some day bring him back to South Sudan to put his skills to work to improve conditions there.

“My generation, the group called the Lost Boys of Sudan, we were advised a long, long time ago, ‘you are the seeds of this country,’” said Garang. “I take that to heart. At some point before I leave this world, I would return to South Sudan.”

For Ndikumana, who worked with Garang both on the UMass campus and at an internship with the African Development Bank, it is clear that his student has a deep commitment to improve life in South Sudan.

“What drives James is his devotion to his country,” said Ndikumana. “He wants to help build the economic base of his country and if he can learn anything that would be helpful in moving his country forward, he would do it.”

With renewed violence in South Sudan, Garang searches out news sources, regularly reading the Sudan Tribune and briefings from the Brookings Institution, and checking various South Sudanese forums and social media sources, including Facebook, to keep up.

He says his initial reaction was shock at what appears to be a “suicidal outburst of violence” a mere two years after the historic vote for independence.

“Call it a fratricide if you will,” he said. “Why did we fight Khartoum for almost close to half a century (1955-1972 and 1983-2005), and separate from the north only to tear ourselves apart over power struggle?”

He said he hopes the government in Juba and rebels will adhere to a cease-fire, resolve their differences, and develop a “robust reform agenda.”

A milestone

When Garang defended his 298-page dissertation on March 12 there was never any doubt that he would pass with flying colors. The topic was how the financial systems in Kenya and South Sudan contribute to the creation of small and medium-sized business enterprises. Ndikumana said Garang was eager to see what lessons South Sudan, essentially a nation starting from scratch, might learn from an established country like Kenya.

Ndikumana said he is impressed with how far Garang has come, especially in light of how much ground he had to cover to make it in the world of academia.

“I think James has done something very few people would be able to achieve,” he said. “He had to work twice as hard as everybody else.”

At various points, when he heard the scope of the project Garang wanted to undertake, he had his doubts: “I said, ‘Oh my god, is he going to take 10 years to do this?’ ”

But Garang completed his degree in seven years, not an unusual length of time at all.

“I just hope I can get another student like James,” said Ndikumana. “His achievements have no parallel to me.”

Meanwhile, the Garang family spent a blustery day during the April school vacation together in their modest apartment unit on Route 116 in Sunderland.

On the living room wall are two framed pictures of the family — James and Maria, and three children decked out for the holidays — taken in a studio at the Holyoke Mall, next to which is pinned a map of Africa, the largest country in which is Sudan before it was divided.

Those are his loyalties, to his family and to his home country.

As he participates this weekend in graduation festivities, he is keenly aware that his accomplishment in the face of so many obstacles might seem an unlikely outcome. And yet, he was driven by the same steely determination that sustained him across the desert and allowed him to thrive in refugee camps.

“I said I’m going as far as my legs would take me,” he recalls.

Today those legs will take him up a set of steps and onto a stage, where he will accept a hard-earned doctorate.