Mator Jacob Aketch is getting a crash course on all things D.C.: Since arriving in the city on Aug. 7, he’s taken photos in front of the White House, wandered through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and admired the monuments surrounding the National Mall.
“Back at home, I’d just see pictures of D.C. on papers and videos. I kept saying, ‘Should I be there someday?’ And finally, I’ve made it,” he said.
Mr. Aketch, a native of South Sudan, is the George Washington University’s second student to receive a full scholarship through GW and Banaa: The Sudan Educational Empowerment Network. Alumni Evan Faber, B.A. ’09, and Justin Zorn, B.A. ’08, started the program in 2006 to provide educational opportunities for young people affected by ongoing conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan.
Since the program’s inception, GW students have raised funds, secured grants and helped with the application process to bring new Banaa scholars to the university. The group has received ongoing support from the Office of the President, the Office of International Programs, the Office of Admissions, the Center for Student Engagement and the Division of Development and Alumni Relations.
Although GW runs the only student-led Banaa organization, the University of Rochester funds Banaa scholars through its Renaissance & Global Scholarship Program. Salva Barjok, who was recruited with Mr. Aketch this year, will start his freshman year at the University of Rochester, where Banaa scholars Mohamed Ahmed and Sameer Kuku Kafur are completing their bachelor’s degrees. More than 30 other universities have launched efforts to open their own chapters of the scholarship.
Mr. Aketch found information about the scholarship program online. He was struck by its objective of molding leaders in South Sudan, and he fit the description of an ideal Banaa scholar: a South Sudanese student with strong academic credentials, a desire to improve the country’s infrastructure and a passion for conflict resolution.
“Working for the best of my country is my ultimate end. The scholarship is really a chance for me to gain knowledge and go on the side of service to my country,” he said.
Upon arriving in D.C., Mr. Aketch and the three Banaa scholars from the University of Rochester attended a five-day summit focused on cultural transitions and leadership development. Student members of GW’s Banaa program guided the scholars during tours and helped organize workshops on topics like study skills, campus life, intercultural communication and more.
The students also visited the United States Institute of Peace for a discussion on peace-building strategies and conflict resolution. Mr. Aketch was moved by the session, calling it one of the most amazing workshops he’d ever attended.
“There’s been a lot of civil war going on in my country for basically 50 years—it has never stopped. That calls for the South Sudanese to contribute in peacemaking,” Mr. Aketch said. “There’s no way that South Sudan will be in peace when the citizens aren’t informed of what peace is.”
GW’s first Banaa scholar, Makwei Mabioor Deng, B.A. ’12, returned to Sudan after majoring in philosophy and economics. Mr. Aketch is the first student in the program interested in pursuing a career in civil engineering. He attended a preparatory engineering course at Malaysia’s University of Nottingham, and in his application, he described how large-scale projects, like developing oil rigs, could bring Sudanese communities together.
“I would love to see an engineer with goals like Jacob’s bring about change by improving the country’s infrastructure,” said Eric Schlabs, a senior civil engineering major and member of the Banaa program. “Jacob really diversifies our group of scholars.”
The summit has also given the Banaa scholars a chance to connect with the GW community. Mr. Aketch said he felt Mr. Schlabs and other students from the Banaa program took him in “like a brother”—which makes him excited to cultivate more friendships when the semester starts.
“Interacting with others is a value to me because I can learn a lot from people, and perhaps they will learn a lot from me,” he said.