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Mayai, once a 'Lost Boy,' seeks Rochester area help to fund scholarships for South Sudan students

Mayai of Rochester says education will be key to lifting literacy rates and developing his country

Augustino Ting Mayai
Augustino Ting Mayai on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Augustino Ting Mayai of Rochester was only eight when he became one of 20,000 young boys who were driven from their families and villages amid a civil war in Sudan.

He and the others became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Many of the children died from hunger, thirst, drowning, eating poisonous plants and attacks from lions and alligators. Then there were the soldiers shooting at them. The Lost Boys walked more than a thousand miles to reach a refugee camp in Kenya and half of them died before getting there.

Mayai, now 40, faced two near-death experiences during the trek, but says he and other children were able to survive by banding together and sharing what little they had with each other

“If I was lucky to get a fruit in the wilderness, I would bring it and share it with my peers,” Mayai said. “And that’s how we survived.”

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Mayai is currently heading up an effort to fund a scholarship program called “ PASS ” that is based on the same principle of sharing. PASS stands for Padoc Area Scholars Society. Padoc refers to an area of South Sudan where literacy rates are less than 10%. Maya says the program would provide college scholarships to students in the area and spur development in one of the poorest regions of the country.

South Sudan is one of the newest countries on the planet, gaining its independence in 2011.

Today, Mayai is co-founder of The Sudd Institute, a think tank, an extensive writer on South Sudan’s current affairs and is an assistant professor of the University of Juba’s School of Public Service. He divides his time between living in Rochester and South Sudan.

How did you survive as a Lost Boy?

We were alone in the sense that our parents were not with us. It was just boys and a few adults who were displaced. There were thousands of us. We lived together as a community. We supported one another. We still do today. Even when I came to Rochester for the first time, the people who hosted me were my (Lost Boy) peers. The solidarity that we formed, psychologically known as fictive kinship, was instrumental in our survival. If I was lucky to get a fruit in the wilderness, I shared it with my peers.

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Sharing what little you had was key to surviving a civil war as a child. Do you see the scholarships you are giving as an extension of that impulse?

I was afforded an opportunity through the generosity of Americans and also through support of my peers to get a quality education and earn a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. So, it’s now on me to give back, especially to those that are not so lucky. There are plenty of kids who want to get an education, but they don’t have access to even $100 to pay for basic stuff. So the idea we came up with is to mobilize support within the U.S. and fund those kids in South Sudan.

So how do you divide your time between Rochester and South Sudan?

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I come to Rochester every three months from South Sudan and spend a month here. Then I go back to Juba. I work there full time.

Do you marvel at how far you have come. You were once a Lost Boy trying to survive a civil war and now you are a doctor trying to help his country?

I appreciate how many people have worked really hard to help me become the person I am today. I did the best I could as an individual, but I don’t think I could have done it by myself.

The refugee program, which settled us in Kenya, and the U.S. immigration program, which brought us to the U.S., were critical. And then there were individual Americans who provided support when I landed in Utah. I did my undergraduate studies in Utah and had a support system that I remember very well.

How did you come up with the idea of a South Sudan scholarship program?

South Sudan has very low rates of literacy. So human capital development is limited. Education will be key to societal progress in South Sudan. If you don’t provide educational opportunities to an area you want to develop, you might as well forget it. And the area we are serving has the lowest rate of literacy in the country.

Do these scholarships have a specific focus?

So, we’re looking at technical careers. We’re looking to help students who want to go into public health, medical tech or becoming a doctor. We are also looking to support careers in urban planning, statistics, and demography, as well as engineering, plumbing and other trades.

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How many students do you hope to help?

The program is in its second year and last year we admitted 33 into the program. Two graduated from it and two others left for another scholarship program. So that left us with 29. We want to admit between 20 and 30 students this year.

And how much money do you hope to raise?

We’re looking at around $40,000 to $50,000.

Where would you describe South Sudan in terms of its development currently?

South Sudan is where the U.S or the UK was in the 1800s in terms of development and infrastructure. Life expectancy is below 60 years. (It’s 79 in the U.S.) There is only a single road which runs from Juba to the border of Uganda.

Why do you see Rochester as a place that will support your cause?

Rochester is a place where there is awareness of international issues. It is known for its support of the international community and especially refugees.

We are also registered with the Internal Revenue Service. We got our 501(c)(3) status in July. So donations are tax deductible.

Note: Anyone interested in donating to support the PASS scholarship fund can visit the website at southsudanpass.org .

Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to news@postbulletin.com .

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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