The former lost boy from South Sudan wants to help young people from his poor home country to go to university
Augustino Ting Mayai was 8 years old when he walked about 900 miles from his home in South Sudan to Kenya after his village was attacked and family members were killed. Mayai was among the famous “Lost Boys” – groups of children who undertook similar treks to escape the civil war in South Sudan.
Now 40 and armed with a doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mayai has a home and family in Rochester, Minnesota, but spends most of the year in Juba, Sudan. South, trying to raise the standard of living in the community through a non-profit organization called the Padoc Area Scholars Society (PASS).
Mayai is co-founder and CEO of the Sudd Institute, a think tank designed to inform public policy and promote peace and prosperity. He is also an assistant professor at the School of Public Service at the University of Juba.
In a country where the literacy rate is only 27%, Mayai wants to help more young people attend university.
“The majority of South Sudanese don’t even have a dollar a day, so around 80% of South Sudanese live below the poverty line,” Mayai said. “There is no middle class in South Sudan. A few corrupt officials have resources, and everyone is on the same level.”
Mayai partnered with Fran Roby, a St. Paul resident and retired school guidance counselor, to collect donations for scholarships. There are about 70 applicants from Apuk Padoc, a community of about 100,000, where the vast majority of residents are under 30 and the literacy rate is less than 10%.
The two met about 10 years ago, when Roby’s daughter attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Mayai was a graduate student there. Last year, Roby called Mayai to see how he was doing and heard about the college situation.
“It’s sad because we see so many kids graduating from high school [in South Sudan] who can’t afford to go to college – they end up on the farm and in poverty,” Roby said.
He told Mayai, “Well, why don’t you and I see if we can get something done.”
Last year, thanks to an anonymous Minnesota donor, the two were able to send 33 students to college. Most come back for a second year. Another 40 applied to PASS for first-year scholarships.
Public universities in South Sudan are funded by the government. A scholarship — requiring a donation of $22 a month — is used to cover tuition, books and transportation, Roby said. With PASS’s all-volunteer staff and low overhead, approximately 95% of donations go directly to scholarships.
Students attending public universities are required to study whatever the government tells them to study, based on their test scores, Mayai said. Private universities are available for those who want to pursue different fields; scholarships to those cost around $2,400 per year.
This represents about 6% of the average private tuition for the 2022-23 school year in the United States and less than a quarter of the average cost for an in-state student at a public university.
But many students can’t go to university because their families don’t own enough cows, the main currency in South Sudan.
Donors “will never get more for their money than by helping a South Sudanese student,” Roby said. “We ask them to sponsor a student for the full duration of their college, usually four years but sometimes three years. In that four-year period, you can buy someone a college education and completely change their life, that which is pretty amazing.”
‘I was lucky’
Mayai was one of approximately 20,000 “lost boys”. More than half of the uprooted boys, many of them young children, died of starvation, thirst, drowning, disease, crossfire from fighting forces or attacks by wild animals during their journey to a refugee camp in Kenya.
At one point, Mayai, traveling with her cousin, suffered three days of life-threatening diarrhea. No medication was available.
“I was lucky,” Mayai said. “My cousin went to get me some pumpkin soup, I don’t know how my cousin understood, but he thought it was the medicine I needed. I regained my strength a few hours later that.”
After about three months of walking, he arrived in a refugee camp in Kenya. He spent about six years in refugee and displaced persons camps, where he was able to go to school. In 2001 he came to the United States and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He began graduate studies there, but took a few years off to return to South Sudan, where a government was in the process of being formed. He returned and enrolled at Madison to complete his doctorate.
When he returned to South Sudan, Mayai decided that the most effective way to help would be to mobilize resources for education that would provide manpower to establish infrastructure and institutions.
About half of the students who received scholarships last year went into medicine. Others have studied business administration, agriculture and forestry, engineering, industrial sciences, public health, and other fields.
“If you’re a medical doctor, you can start your own clinic; if you’re a demographer, you can make a plan of how many people will be in one place five years from now – and how many schools, how many hospitals will be needed said Mayai.
“Human capital is the engine of development, so investing in education is the engine of the system.”