Moving to another country is usually difficult because there are language and cultural barriers. Garang Buk Buk Piol (20G), a graduate student from South Sudan, had a more difficult time than most international students at Emory. Buk Buk, who was a victim of armed conflict and a child soldier in Sudan in the 1990s, had to dodge violence, navigate poverty, work with limited internet and deal with the United States visa system before he stepped foot in the U.S. Through sheer determination, with help from Emory’s Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) program as well as the people of Haddonfield, N.J., Buk Buk overcame every obstacle.

Buk Buk’s journey to study at Emory began before his undergraduate studies at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) in Nairobi, Kenya. Buk Buk conducted fieldwork in South Sudanese communities like his own as part of the Carter Center Guinea Worm Eradication Program. He worked with communities to help spread awareness of the worm’s impact and how to stop its transmission.

One of Buk Buk’s colleagues at the Carter Center introduced him to Kimberly Dickstein, an English teacher at Haddonfield High School in New Jersey. Dickstein’s class was reading Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” and Dickstein thought Buk Buk could help the class understand the book on a more personal level, so she arranged for him to share his story with the class via Skype.

Dickstein and her students kept in touch with Buk Buk for nearly three years throughout his undergraduate studies at the CUEA. At Haddonfield High School’s prom in May 2018, Dickstein’s students inquired about Buk Buk’s plans to apply to graduate school. Dickstein reached out to Buk Buk and learned that he would face a tremendous financial burden to study in the U.S.

Buk Buk applied to several graduate programs in the U.S., as well as the London School of Economics. Emory offered the most financial assistance, according to Buk Buk, though the total amount was still far out of reach. According to Rebeca Quintana, program manager at MDP, the program cannot offer a full tuition waiver because its students are pursuing a “professional degree.”  

Unlike American students, international students cannot apply for federal student aid. Furthermore, securing a visa requires international students to prove that they can afford not only tuition but also basic living expenses. Buk Buk had to prove he had access to $93,922 before he could even enter the country, Dickstein said. About half of this sum was covered by Emory’s scholarship.

In Summer 2018, Dickstein organized a GoFundMe campaign to raise the funds to cover Buk Buk’s remaining tuition and living expenses. Dickstein’s students also helped raise money by canvassing door-to-door in Haddonfield.

The GoFundMe has raised $68,535 of the $93,922 goal from 246 contributors as of Oct. 30. However, the amount raised includes the $40,235 from the scholarship granted to Buk Buk by Emory’s Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) program. Dickstein explained that including the scholarship in the amount raised was essential for building fundraising momentum.

The goal amount, $93,922, only includes Buk Buk’s tuition for his first two semesters. While fundraising has enabled Buk Buk to come to Emory and pay for his first semester, Dickstein says “the Garang advocacy campaign,” which is composed of her and five of her students, is still working to raise the funds for his next semester.

To travel to Emory, Buk Buk endured a dangerous trip. First, he traveled from Aweil to Juba, the country’s capital. From Juba, Buk Buk planned to drive to Uganda in an effort to save money, but the ongoing insecurity in some parts of South Sudan forced him to return to Juba.

“As we were going, people were killed along the road, so I had to go back to Juba,” Buk Buk said. From Juba, Buk Buk flew to Nairobi, then to Paris, then Atlanta.

Before Buk Buk could receive his U.S. visa, an officer at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi interviewed him. Buk Buk needed to demonstrate he could contribute to American society. Since Buk Buk is a victim of armed conflict, the interview process was especially thorough.

The Emory MDP program offered Buk Buk a lawyer from Antonini and Cohen, an Atlanta-based law firm, who provided pro bono legal advice throughout Buk Buk’s visa process. American friends, including Dickstein and Buk Buk’s colleagues at the Carter Center, provided written testimonies supporting his visa application. Among Buk Buk’s colleagues from the Carter Center who provided testimonies was Marion Creekmore, former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives. Buk Buk noted that the process was made easier because of the outpour of support he had received.

Before coming to Emory, Buk Buk said his economic situation and the ongoing conflict in South Sudan hindered his chances of obtaining a high-quality education.

“There is one university in South Sudan,” Buk Buk said. “There used to be three but two have been closed because of the war. There were upcoming private universities until the war broke out.”

Even after Buk Buk left his home country to pursue his education in Kenya, he still experienced hardship.

“[While studying] in Kenya, I was living in an iron-sheet house in someone’s backyard,” Buk Buk said. “Sometimes … you are just looking for a way to survive. It was my intention to go to [a] university that helped motivate me.”  

Today Buk Buk attends classes at the Laney Graduate School’s Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) program.

“The MDP is designed to teach people how to work on issues of poverty, inequality and global health from an imbedded perspective,” said Hilary King, a post-doctoral fellow at MDP and a recruiter for the program. King is also one of the professors for the introductory core course of the MDP program, foundations of development. Buk Buk “is adding a lot to our courses and discussion by bringing in his own experience and connecting it to the academic concepts and analyses that we are working with in the program,” King said.

Buk Buk hopes to translate his experiences with violence and poverty into a passion for helping others. Buk Buk is pursuing his Master’s in Development Practice so he can assist his community and inspire others like him to pursue a quality education.

“When I finished my undergraduate studies, I went to work with a grassroots organization that was doing a lot of advocacy and youth-training,” Buk Buk said. “I was using my own example and bringing other people who had had the opportunity to be educated and trying to let [young people] know that you can be who you want to be, you can make it, if you are determined.”

He expressed optimism about the future of South Sudan.

“Youth in South Sudan are the backbone of the country,” Buk Buk said. “They are also the backbone of the war going on. They are the same people being used by the government. If they embrace each other, they know they can make their country better.”