Augustino Ting Mayai was 8 years old when he traveled about 900 miles on foot from his home in South Sudan to Kenya after his village was attacked and family members killed. Mayai was among the famous "Lost Boys" — groups of children who took similar treks to escape 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, Minn., but spends most of the year in Juba, South Sudan, trying to raise the standard of living in the community through a nonprofit called Padoc Area Scholars Society (PASS).
Mayai is co-founder and managing director of the Sudd Institute, a think tank designed to inform public policy and promote peace and prosperity. He's also an assistant professor at the University of Juba's School of Public Service.
In a country where the literacy rate is only 27%, Mayai wants to help more young people attend college.
"A majority of South Sudanese do not even have a dollar a day, so about 80% of South Sudanese live below the poverty line," Mayai said. "There's no middle class in South Sudan. A few corrupt government officials have resources, and everybody else is on the same level."
Mayai has partnered with Fran Roby, a St. Paul resident and retired school guidance counselor, to raise donations for scholarships. There are about 70 applicants from Apuk Padoc, a community of around 100,000, where the vast majority of residents are under 30 and the literacy rate is below 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 don't have the means to go to college — they end up staying on the farm and staying in poverty," Roby said.
He told Mayai, "Well, why don't you and I see if we can get something going."
Last year, thanks to an anonymous Minnesota donor, the two were able to send 33 students to college. Most are returning for a second year. An additional 40 have 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 — goes toward student fees, books and transportation, Roby said. With PASS' all-volunteer staff and low overhead, about 95% of donations go directly to the scholarships.
Students who attend public universities are required to study whatever the government tells them to study, based on their results on an exam, Mayai said. Private universities are available for those who want to pursue different fields; scholarships to those run about $2,400 a year.
That's about 6% of 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 in a public university.
But many students aren't able to attend college because their families don't own enough cows — the primary currency in South Sudan.
Donors "will never get more bang for their buck than they will helping a South Sudanese college student," Roby said. "We ask that they sponsor a student throughout the duration of their college, typically four years but sometimes three years. Over that four-year-period, you can buy someone a college education and completely change their lives, which is pretty amazing."
'I was lucky'
Mayai was one of about 20,000 "Lost Boys." More than half of the uprooted boys, many of them young children, died of starvation, thirst, drowning, illness, crossfire from fighting forces or wild-animal attacks during their journey to a refugee camp in Kenya.
At one point Mayai, traveling with his cousin, suffered three days of life-threatening diarrhea. No medications were available.
"I was lucky," Mayai said. "My cousin went and got me some pumpkin soup, I don't know how my cousin figured it out, but he thought that was the medicine I needed. I regained my strength a few hours after that."
After about three months of walking, he arrived at a refugee camp in Kenya. He spent about six years in refugee and displacement camps, where he was able to go to school. In 2001, he came to the United States and received a bachelor's degree at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He started graduate studies there but took a couple of years off to return to South Sudan, where a government was forming. He returned and enrolled in Madison to complete his doctorate.
When he went back to South Sudan, Mayai decided the most effective way to help would be raising resources for education that would provide a workforce to establish infrastructure and institutions.
About half the students who received scholarships last year went into medicine. Others studied business administration, agriculture and forestry, engineering, industrial science, public health and other fields.
"If you graduate as a medical doctor, you can establish your own clinic; if you're a demographer, you can put together a plan for how many people will be in a location in five years' time — and how many schools, how many hospitals will be needed," Mayai said.
"Human capital is what drives development, so investing in education is what drives the system."