It wasn’t until 2005, when Majak Anyieth was about 12 or 13 years old, that he realized he needed to have a birth date.
His father, a soldier, had been killed in Sudan’s Civil War when Majak was young. His mother, a poor farmer with five children, never learned to read or write. As a boy, Majak would walk barefoot for an hour from his village to a school in the Jonglei state in southeastern Sudan. Primary school was taught under a tree, and the children shared the school’s few tattered books. Sometimes Majak couldn’t go to school because he needed to tend the family’s goats. He once missed a year of school because of a broken arm that didn’t heal properly.
Through a cousin, Majak learned about the Kakuma Refugee Camp, one of the largest in Africa, run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Located in the semi-arid desert of northwestern Kenya, Kakuma serves some 200,000 people fleeing wars and violence in neighboring Sudan and Somalia. Life in Kakuma is enormously challenging. Dust storms are frequent. Malnutrition, cholera and malaria are endemic. Venomous spiders, snakes and scorpions abound, and daytime temperatures often exceed 100 degrees.
Kakuma was well-known as a destination of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” — boys as young as 5 or 6 who had been forced into military service in Sudan’s brutal civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, and who wandered through the bush for weeks before reaching the refugee camp on the Kenya border. Some Lost Boys left Kakuma for resettlement in other countries, including a few thousand who were adopted by families in the United States. Among them was Lopez Lomong, whose poignant memoir, Running for My Life, detailed how his ability to run saved his life. But many refugees have remained at the camp their whole lives: children grow into adults and hope fades to resignation.
In search of better educational opportunities, Majak traveled to Kakuma in 2005. Although Majak had no birth certificate, he knew he was born around 1992. When asked to give his birth date by the U.N. officials at Kakuma, he made one up: May 25, 1992.
Majak took shelter in his cousin’s tent but could understand little of life in the refugee camp. He spoke Dinka while most camp workers spoke Swahili. Then he began to attend school regularly, learned English and flourished. In 2008, after three years in the camp, he finished the equivalent of eighth grade. Not only did he excel in math and science, he became known as a talented poet as well. When results of Kenya’s national eighth-grade exams were posted, Majak had the highest score of any student in Kakuma.
A former Lost Boy, Garang Akau, who had been educated in the United States, had set up a New Scholars program to allow promising teenagers in Kakuma to enroll at local high schools. Majak was among those selected for the program. He began attending the Lodwar Boys High School, about two hours from Kakuma, but the refugee camp remained his home.
Only a few years later, in autumn of 2013, Majak enrolled as a freshman at Notre Dame. He became the University’s first undergraduate from the world’s newest country, South Sudan.
About the same time Majak arrived at Kakuma in 2005, two recent Stanford MBA graduates, Fred Swaniker and Chris Bradford, were puzzling out how to address the critical challenge of developing leadership opportunities for talented young Africans.
Born in Ghana and raised around Africa, Swaniker was planning a career in business when he accepted an internship in Nigeria for the summer after his first year at Stanford. There he observed wealthy Nigerian families sending their children to schools overseas, paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
Bradford arrived at Stanford after teaching at an English boarding school where wealthy African families sent their children. He had noticed that many African students’ sense of cultural identity slipped away with every term they spent in Europe; some refused to participate when he tried to recruit them for a service project in Kenya.
While top U.S. universities offer scholarships to talented students from around the world, Swaniker and Bradford knew that few graduates of local high schools in Africa were prepared for these colleges’ rigorous admission processes. So the pair launched the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, South Africa. They used their Silicon Valley connections to find financial backing and developed an extensive network of contacts across Africa to identify the most promising 15- to 19-year-old leaders on the continent. These future leaders were then brought together at ALA for a two-year pre-university program.
In very short order, thousands of African high school students began applying for the hundred places at ALA.
The first class entered in 2008. While every student is required to pay something, the majority pay only a nominal amount. The remaining tuition is granted as a scholarship, provided the student commits to staying and working in Africa after graduating from university.
Majak excelled at the Lodwar Boys High School in Kenya, and during his breaks would return to Kakuma to work on projects. He was particularly committed to addressing the issue of forced marriages. Among some communities in the camp, girls in their young teens were required to marry, often against their will. Majak, working with a U.N. representative, would talk with families in the camp and in a number of cases was able to frame culturally sensitive alternatives to marriage for the young girls.
The New Scholars sponsor who was supporting Majak’s high-school education encouraged him to apply for the ALA program. Majak filled out the application form, made it through a preliminary selection process and then submitted more materials online — one of some 2,000 applicants for about 100 places.
‘A tree represents my community in South Sudan,’ Majak told the group. He held up the leaf. ‘This leaf represents the many leaves that through photosynthesis make the energy for the tree. We, the young people, are the leaves that must make energy for our communities.’
Majak was thrilled to learn that he qualified for a final round of ALA interviews in Nairobi. He was informed that he should arrive at the interview with an object that was important to him and to be prepared to talk about it. To attend the interview he needed to travel some 500 miles by bus to Kenya’s capital city. He imagined once he arrived in Nairobi he would have time to find a good object to discuss. However, he got lost in the city of 3 million people and showed up late, just as the other candidates were presenting their objects. There were more than 50 Kenyans, some from their country’s best high schools. He was the only student from South Sudan.
As Majak entered the hall, he picked a leaf from a plant by the door.
“A tree represents my community in South Sudan,” Majak told the group. He held up the leaf. “This leaf represents the many leaves that through photosynthesis make the energy for the tree. We, the young people, are the leaves that must make energy for our communities.”
He completed a written examination and returned to his school. A few days later he received word that he had been admitted. “I have accomplished something important,” he thought to himself.
Majak realized he didn’t know much about the African Leadership Academy. He had been so focused on the interview and exam that he didn’t ask many questions. One thing he knew, though, was that if he did really well in his two years at the ALA, he might be able to go to a university in a faraway place like the United States.
The African Leadership Academy on the outskirts of Johannesburg resembles a small, U.S. liberal arts college campus, with two-story, red brick buildings circling a central grassy quad. Around the quad are dormitories, classrooms, the dining hall, a 350-seat auditorium, a library, a design laboratory and an administration building. A peacock occasionally wanders the grounds. In the main lobby of the administration building are six red brick pillars inscribed with the ALA core values: curiosity, compassion, humility, diversity, excellence, integrity.
The buildings once held a residential printing-press institute that trained students in typesetting. ALA enrolled its first class of 106 students in 2008, sharing the space with students in the last year of the printing institute.
ALA addresses what it sees as Africa’s biggest challenge — the need for more entrepreneurial, ethical and transformative leaders.
“It’s important to note that one cannot become a leader over two years; it’s a lifelong development process,” says co-founder Bradford. “This is why we work with teenagers during the two years in ALA as well as develop networks that they can use in college and beyond. We are fostering a lifelong network of leaders.”
Adds Swaniker, “Our work is empowering young people to take control of their destiny, and we think leadership is something that can be developed. Our goal is to create an environment where leaders emerge who will transform a continent.”
The students’ backgrounds are as diverse as Africa’s population; they arrive from urban private schools, urban public schools or rural villages without school funds or electricity. The majority are from low-income families. They generally speak Swahili, Arabic, French or Zulu, with English as their second or third language.
ALA’s two-year curriculum has three primary components: rigorous academics, especially math, science and writing; an entrepreneurial core, to spark students’ interest in market-based solutions; and African studies, to instill a sense of continental pride that will drive students to return if they do university studies abroad. The school’s 75 faculty and staff members come from more than a dozen countries. Nearly 80 percent of the teachers are African, and about half are in their 20s or early 30s.
Classes, which typically have no more than 15 students, emphasize discussion rather than lectures. Students, who wear maroon and black uniforms, are required either to help run a business, such as the on-campus bank or an operation that supplies food for the school cafeteria, or to develop a long-term service project that continues after their time at ALA.
“We tell parents,” says Chris Cheney, who oversees admissions, “you’re going to get a different student back after a year with us.”
The academy’s formula for luring talent is straightforward: It offers an amazing educational opportunity for students committed to work in Africa. It prepares its graduates for entry and scholarships to some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Its annual tuition and fees of $30,000 per student seem ridiculously out of reach for the vast majority of Africans, but 95 percent receive financial aid in the form of forgivable loans. The debt is canceled if the ALA student returns to Africa after university studies and works on the continent for 10 years.
“Every student pays something,” Cheney says. “Some have to work incredibly hard to do it. It might be only $150 of the $30,000, but this would be enormous sacrifice for a family that might only earn a few dollars a day.”
ALA has not only built an effective pipeline for recruiting talented students across Africa, it has had phenomenal success in placing them at highly selective universities around the world. By 2010, ALA had graduates at Dartmouth, Duke, North Carolina and Stanford. Notre Dame would soon join the list.
In autumn of 2010, Notre Dame created the merit-based, four-year Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program (HYSP) to attract extraordinary students who will have a transformational effect on the Notre Dame community and the world. Founded by Mark Yusko ’85, the program is built around four summer enrichment experiences: wilderness leadership, social justice, global inquiry and professional opportunity.
The program invited Chemeli Kipkorir, ALA’s director of University Guidance, to visit Notre Dame in the summer of 2011. She in turn facilitated a visit to ALA in the autumn of 2011 by a small Notre Dame delegation.
“These ALA students were absolutely and utterly compelling,” says Joseph Buttigieg, academic director of HYSP. The Notre Dame delegation had originally planned to invite two, maybe three, students to the program but instead offered four scholarships that first year.
Three students — Kay Kay Essien of Nigeria, Geraldine Mukumbi of Zimbabwe and Jason Saroni of Lesotho — enrolled at Notre Dame in autumn 2012. The fourth, Olivia Mogaka of Kenya, was unable to resolve a visa issue for that fall and came to South Bend in 2013.
“When ALA students arrived in my classroom, the dynamic fundamentally changed,” says ND history professor Paul Ocobock, who specializes in Africa. “They brought a real maturity and rigor to how they approach their studies . . . they obliterate so many of the misconceptions their fellow classmates have about Africa. They become my partners or, more accurately, leaders, in my effort to get Notre Dame students to see the history of Africa as rich, complicated and deeply connected to the world they are already so familiar with.”
This impact of ALA students coming to Notre Dame was just the beginning.
“We want the academic outliers,” says ALA’s Cheney. “The students, of course, have to be able to do the academic work, but we also look for leadership, entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to Africa. Majak clearly fit the profile of what we were looking for. . . . Majak was unable to imagine an obstacle he could not overcome.”
For Majak, however, getting accepted to ALA turned out to be the easier part of his process. Now he had to get from South Sudan to South Africa. And that required a passport and a visa. Paperwork challenges following South Sudan’s independence in July 2011 delayed his travel to Johannesburg until November — two months into the academy’s academic year.
“When I arrived, everyone already knew everyone else at ALA,” Majak says, “so that was a little difficult at first.” To help them understand the entire continent, students are deliberately paired with a roommate from a different country who usually has a different first language. Majak’s first-year roommate was from the tiny country of Lesotho in southern Africa.
“On the academic side, math class was hardest, because many of the students were so well prepared and had done a lot of math,” Majak says. “However, what felt the most different at ALA was that we were not in school only to excel in academics but also to think about how we could positively impact our communities.”
It wasn’t long after Majak arrived that ALA staff encouraged him to think about his future university studies. Majak wanted a school in the United States with a strong financial aid package and listed Stanford, Duke and Notre Dame as his top choices.
His ALA college counselor encouraged him to apply for a Notre Dame scholarship. Majak liked the idea. He wanted to become a doctor and was interested in ND’s strong preprofessional program. He also found inspiring what he read about Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, the University’s president emeritus.
“I saw that Father Hesburgh worked well in many different communities,” Majak says. “Father Hesburgh was a community activist — the kind of activist I wanted to be. I thought many of the things he did were very selfless, and I hoped that by coming to Notre Dame I would pick up some of those qualities.”
He connected on Facebook with the ALA students he knew who had gone to Notre Dame — Kay Kay, Jason and Geraldine.
“They all said that Notre Dame was a really neat community,” he says. “I was enthusiastic to go to a college that was more than just good at building networks. I wanted to be part of a close community. I also wanted to study at a place that would help me sort out what I believed and what I should do about important issues in my life and in the world.”
In December 2012, Don Bishop, Notre Dame’s associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment, accompanied the second Notre Dame delegation to South Africa.
Majak had applied online to Notre Dame, as did a good number of his ALA classmates. In Johannesburg, they nervously spent an entire day doing individual interviews and group exercises with the Notre Dame representatives.
In the end, Notre Dame invited three ALA students to join the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program and offered seven additional scholarships, including one to Majak. Officials expected that six or seven of the 10 would enroll, since many also had offers from other universities.
All 10 ALA students who were made offers enrolled at Notre Dame.
“ALA’s culture is definitely aligned with ours,” says Bishop, “and we believe that working with ALA is certainly the most efficient and effective manner to recruit talented, service-oriented and highly diverse students from across Africa to come to Notre Dame. . . . Together we are in partnership with ALA, helping build a network of future African leaders.”
Majak arrived at the South Bend airport in August 2013. He moved his possessions — a carry-on suitcase held everything he owned — into Zahm Hall. One roommate had brought a 36-inch flat screen TV. It was a new world.
At Notre Dame, Majak found evidence of the supportive community his ALA classmates had described. Some of his new life, though, took getting used to. “People smile at you a lot,” he says. “People who don’t know you. That, at first, it kind of freaked me out.” He no longer thinks it strange that you might smile at someone you don’t know. “People at Notre Dame are very friendly and try to be as helpful as they can.”
Other things were also challenging. “Initially, it is hard to follow the conversations with all the talk about TV or movies or American culture,” Majak says. “I now know all about things like The Big Bang Theory . . . and that they were not talking about how the world started but a TV show. Things make a lot more sense. Overall my experience at ND has been great.”
Majak works at a lab studying mosquito-borne infectious diseases such as malaria, where he helps care for and breed the mosquitos. Just as he had hoped, through philosophy and other classes he is learning to sort out what he believes and to chart his own path forward.
The African Leadership Academy story just keeps growing. More talented students are applying than ever before, and ALA leadership is enlarging their campus to accommodate 30 more students a year. ALA graduates attend such top global universities as Brown, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, the London School of Economics, MIT, New York University, the University of Rochester, Oxford, Stanford and Yale.
“The first ALA graduating class began college in 2010. When they graduated from university in 2014,” says ALA’s Chris Cheney, “95 percent had a job, were in graduate school or had begun a startup company. Some 65 percent of these jobs are in Africa. The students are building an African career network for life.”
The ALA students also are transforming the institutions they attend.
“Maybe the most important thing the ALA graduates at Notre Dame do is to encourage their fellow classmates to learn about and visit parts of Africa — but for the right reasons,” says historian Ocobock. “Notre Dame students are driven by a sense of mission, whether to serve on development projects or research social justice issues. But often that drive all too easily slips into hubris: that our ways of doing things can only make things better elsewhere. The ALA graduates push their classmates to rethink why they want to go to Uganda or Ghana. . . . ALA students have quickly dispelled any notion that Africa ‘needs saving.’ It doesn’t — at least no more than any other part of the world.”
In autumn 2014, another seven ALA students enrolled at Notre Dame; this fall, eight more have been offered admission. At that time, the University is expected to have 27 students from ALA. “Among the top 15 ranked American undergraduate national research universities, Notre Dame is enrolling more ALA students than any other,” admissions head Bishop says proudly.
The ND-ALA connections keep growing. Connor Toohill, a 2014 graduate of the Hesburgh-Yusko Program, got to know many of the ALA students during his time at Notre Dame and became fascinated by the stories of his peers from Africa. So after graduation he moved to Johannesburg, where he works full-time with ALA’s entrepreneurial leadership program. He plans to teach at ALA next year.
As for Majak, since he’s been at Notre Dame, he has spent a lot of time exploring how he might help expand educational opportunities in South Sudan. He’s traveled back twice and spent time early in January 2015 exploring opportunities in Bor Town, South Sudan, near the village where he grew up. Through one initiative, Education Bridge, he hopes to build peace among formerly warring tribes using educational efforts he is establishing.
“I think a lot about what I can do in South Sudan that will help my country,” he says. “I have been given so many opportunities. . . . I must take advantage of them. For right now, I am working to build a really good school in South Sudan. This is where I can start to have an impact, so that’s what I’m going to do next.”
Steve Reifenberg is the executive director of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies. His family has served as hosts for Majak Anyieth since his arrival on campus.