Lives Intertwined: Aguil Goes to University

“Education is my mother and father,” say the orphaned children of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, near the border with South Sudan. Education is the surest way for young refugees, traumatized and displaced by decades-long conflicts in South Sudan, to escape famine, poverty, and violence and build new lives.

In fall 2022, one of those orphans, Aguil Lual Deng, fulfilled her dream of enrolling in university to pursue a medical career, with hopes of returning to South Sudan to help her people. The milestone accomplishment was made possible by the support of the Colorado Academy community.

For 14 years, CA Middle School science teacher Sue Counterman has worked on behalf of Kakuma’s refugee children through Seeds of South Sudan, a Colorado-based nonprofit that provides orphans with education, health care, and nutrition. In 2008, she invited the founder of that organization, Arok Garang, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” to CA’s Middle School, where he told students about the orphans like him, fleeing civil war in their home country, who found themselves among the nearly 200,000 refugees living at Kakuma.

The students were determined to help. Garang found seven-year-old Aguil among the thousands of children languishing at Kakuma; she had lost her entire family to the violence in South Sudan. CA Middle Schoolers raised money through bake sales and dances to support Aguil, who was able to begin her education in Nakuru, Kenya, at Roots Academy, one of the top boarding schools in the country.

Year after year, with Counterman leading the way, Middle Schoolers continued to raise funds for Aguil. The steady support allowed her to thrive. She was elected Head Girl by the nearly 1,000 students of the K-8 Roots Academy, and, after earning a top score on the national high school entrance exam, Aguil attended Njonjo Girls High School, one of the most respected national high schools in Kenya.

Throughout her education, Aguil exchanged letters with the Middle School students at CA. “Keep supporting me; I will never let you down,” she wrote.

“A big dream coming true”

In summer 2022, Counterman traveled to Kenya to visit Aguil. It was a chance to celebrate Aguil’s graduation from high school with excursions to Nairobi for shopping and sightseeing, as well as a special trip with classmates to see their very first movie—Sing 2. But it was also an opportunity to surprise the now tall, elegant young woman with a special gift. 

In front of an audience of other young women gathered for a leadership seminar hosted by Seeds of South Sudan, Counterman told Aguil the news that CA would continue to support her by paying for her university tuition, room, and board—$3,800 a year at Mount Kenya University, where Aguil wanted to study. The scholarship would come from a combination of continued Middle School fundraising and additional support from Counterman herself. CA would also provide a laptop, so Aguil could have her own computer at school.

Tears, laughter, and applause filled the room.

“Aguil has had an amazing trajectory,” Counterman says now. “And this has been an incredible story—for her and for CA.”

Recently, Counterman has stayed in touch with Aguil via WhatsApp, one of the primary means of communication in Africa. In a text message, Aguil wrote, “I’m really excited about joining the university. I want to study clinical medicine, but I’m going to start with a diploma in health records. This is a big dream coming true for me. When I’m done, I want to establish my own clinic in South Sudan to treat the people there.”

“South Sudan will be a better place because of Aguil,” Counterman points out. “That’s always been our goal: contributing to a just and peaceful future there.”

A heart of service

CA has benefited in its own way from the long relationship with Aguil. “Many of our students have a heart of service,” explains Counterman. “But this has been a chance to be part of something that’s literally life-changing. Without our support, this talented young person would still be in the refugee camp. Any child who has passed through the Middle School over these last 14 years knows Aguil’s story and has been inspired.”

Counterman has discovered her own special connection with Aguil’s journey. During her summer visit, she learned that Aguil had returned to the small village of Bor in South Sudan to teach science to fifth graders—much like Counterman herself. “I asked her about her students,” she says. “She told me she had all kinds—even cattle farmers. She said she had 20-year-olds just learning to read and write because they could no longer do the work they used to do.”

Aguil also told Counterman about once having to punish her students. “‘What did punishment look like?’ I asked her,” Counterman recalls. “‘I made them go get water for the class because they didn’t do their homework!’”

Lives are forever intertwined through this global success story that is still going strong, says Counterman. As Aguil wrote in her most recent letter to CA students,

“Thank you so much for supporting my education through primary and high school. I really appreciate your efforts to keep me in school. I don’t have words to describe what you mean to me, but I just want you to know that you are amazing and you mean a lot. … I wish you success in everything you do. May blessings be upon you and your family.”