At 6-foot-4 and with quite a wingspan, UC Berkeley engineering student Akol Kuan towered over sixth-graders at Oakland’s Beacon Day School as he gave each of them high-fives. The class had just finished reading A Long Walk to Water, and Kuan, 21, was there to answer questions about his native South Sudan, where the book is set.
The novel follows the hardships and heartbreaks of two Sudanese 11-year-olds, one in 1985 and the other in 2008, as their separate journeys diverge and then intersect. The main character is based on Salva Dut, one of Sudan’s “lost boys” and founder of the nonprofit Water for South Sudan, which has built more than 175 wells in Sudanese villages to provide clean water.
The rapt audience of 11-year-olds at Beacon Day wanted to know if Kuan was a “lost boy” (no) and how many brothers and sisters he has (21). They were also curious about other things, like Kuan’s favorite color (purple), favorite animal (dog) and favorite food (injera, a spongy flatbread).
A member of Sudan’s Dinka tribe, Kuan came to UC Berkeley in June as a recipient of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which funds the education of young people, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, who show academic promise, financial disadvantage and a give-back ethos.
Kuan’s family fled war-torn Sudan for a refugee camp in Kenya. They have since returned to South Sudan, which became an independent state in 2011. The country is wracked with inter-ethnic warfare and crumbling schools, hospitals, transportation and other civilian infrastructures.
At Berkeley, Kuan shares a room with two other students in a residential hall, studies hard and plays on Cal’s Men’s Club soccer team.
When asked how he wants to use a civil engineering degree, Kuan said, “build roads.” That might not seem ambitious to U.S. sixth-graders, but it’s quite an endeavor in South Sudan, to which he hopes to eventually return.
“It might seem simple, but it’s what we need,” Kuan said.