by Laura Donnelly-Smith
The excitement was palpable in the meeting room off the lobby of the George Washington University Office of Admissions, where a small crowd of admissions staff members, students and university administrators clustered in front of a GW backdrop. Assistant Director of Admissions Kevin Hostetler logged into Skype and hit “video call,” then waited while the computer dialed…and dialed…and dialed.
Unable to connect.
A small groan arose from the group. Mr. Hostetler tried several more times. No luck.
Mr. Hostetler sent a quick Internet chat message to Mator Jacob Aketch, a South Sudanese refugee who was at his computer at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. In the admissions office, it was just after 9 a.m. In Malaysia, it was 12 hours later.
“Jacob, are you there?” he asked.
“Yes,” came the reply.
Mr. Hostetler tried the Skype call again without success. Mr. Aketch typed back that his connection was spotty.
“Let’s just call him,” Mr. Hostetler decided. He grabbed a university-issued desk phone, put it on speaker, and entered Mr. Aketch’s cell phone number. It rang, once, twice, three times, four times.
Mr. Aketch picked up. An audible sigh of relief went through the group in the admissions office.
The call had been planned several weeks in advance. Mr. Aketch knew only that he had an appointment for a conversation with Mr. Hostetler, to whom he’d spoken several times before about his application for admission to GW. He didn’t know that this time, he would be offered a full scholarship to attend GW as the university’s second Banaa Scholar.
The Banaa Scholars program is the result of the work of students from Banaa: The Sudan Educational Empowerment Network, an organization started at GW in 2006 by alumni Evan Faber, B.A. ’09, and Justin Zorn, B.A. ’08. The group grew out of the students’ concern about the ongoing civil strife and genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and their desire to make a lasting difference. The word Banaa is Arabic and means “to build” or “to create.” Former GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg committed funding for the first Banaa scholar, Makwei Mabioor Deng, who graduated last spring with a bachelor’s degree in economics and has since returned to Sudan. Since then, students from the Banaa program have worked to raise funds and secure grants to partially support another scholar, with the university covering the balance.
In addition to fundraising, the GW students also help administer the scholarship application process, with support from several university offices. Matt Banks from the Office of Development and Francesca Slesinger and Vanessa Brimner from the Office of International Programs worked with the students to ensure that the moving parts needed to bring a scholar to campus and support him when he arrived were in place, said Donna Scarboro, associate provost for international programs. Ms. Slesinger said she was glad to be able to help the students accomplish their goals for the Banaa program.
“It's been very gratifying to help the Banaa student group extend this opportunity to such a deserving student,” she said. “Jacob will be very welcomed by the GW community next fall.”
The Banaa Scholars program seeks young people of traditional college age from Sudan or South Sudan who have strong academic credentials and a commitment to return to their home country after graduation to help work for lasting peace.
The students who apply for the Banaa scholarship—which is publicized online, through aid agencies operating in Sudan and South Sudan, and through the Sudanese-American diaspora—have not had smooth paths to higher education, said Ryan Brenner, a senior political science and international affairs major who acts as application coordinator for the Banaa group.
All have been personally affected by the violence that has plagued the country for 40 years. Many are refugees who have spent years away from family members, living in refugee camps in Kenya or Uganda. Most have patched together an education through a variety of means, including attendance at refugee camp schools, institutes run by religious or aid groups and scholarships to private secondary school academies. Many applicants have also faced prejudice and marginalization for being refugees.
When Ms. Brenner and the other Banaa students are combing through applications and deciding which they’ll forward to their board of advisers and eventually to the GW admissions office with letters of support, they look for more than academic excellence. The most important factor, she said, is an applicant’s commitment to return home and work for change.
“We really look at much more than grades,” she said. “In Sudan, all students take the same national exams. So a student who’s grown up in a refugee camp is competing against students who are much richer and more privileged. We want someone who can have a positive college experience and connect it to peace building.”
Since Banaa’s founding in 2006, students at more than 30 other universities, including Goucher College and Tufts University, have started Banaa chapters to work on funding their own scholarships. The first university to be successful was the University of Rochester, which brought its first Banaa scholar to campus in 2010 and a second in 2011.
The Banaa students in Rochester worked closely with those at GW in selecting applicants, and GW students and Banaa scholars from both schools gathered last summer for the first of what’s planned to be an annual “Scholar Summit,” in which students met with policy leaders, development practitioners and members of the Sudanese diaspora.
Mr. Aketch emerged as a strong candidate for the scholarship through his application essays, which described his interest in engineering and his desire to use development projects—such as oil pipelines—in his country as opportunities for international cooperation between Sudan and South Sudan, as well as neighboring nations. He will be the first Banaa Scholar to have an engineering major.
Mr. Hostetler said Mr. Aketch’s academic achievement is remarkable, given that he spent a significant part of his childhood in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, a desert encampment of more than 70,000 refugees from at least seven different countries.
“Jacob went to high school in Kenya, performing extremely well on his high school exit exams,” he said. “He has shown remarkable resilience and is currently enrolled in a non-degree, preparatory course in engineering at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.”
Back in the Office of Admissions meeting room, Slavko Bradic, director of undergraduate international admissions, stepped up to the phone to deliver the good news to Mr. Aketch.
“We are very impressed with your academic achievements, and we strongly believe in your ability to continue this success here at GW,” Mr. Bradic said. “We’re confident you’ll make lasting contributions to our community, to your country and to the world. We’d like to present you today with a Banaa Scholarship.”
For a moment, there was silence on the other end of the phone line. Then Mr. Aketch took a deep, audible breath.
“Ohhhh,” he said. “Really? I cannot thank Banaa enough. I have no words to describe it…. I’m really excited.”
Barbara Porter, chief of staff in George Washington University President Steven Knapp’s office, offered Mr. Aketch an official welcome from the administration.
“I want to welcome you to the class of 2017 and tell you how thrilled we are to have a second scholar,” she said. “But I really have to give credit to the students, who have been fundraising and working hard to get you to America. There are a lot of tears in the room today because they are so thrilled you’ll be coming this fall.”
Mr. Aketch’s voice, thick with emotion, came over the phone line from the other side of the world.
“Before, I could not see….now, with GW and Banaa, the light is on.”
For information about supporting the Banaa Scholars program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.