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Santino Akot

It's 1987 in southern Sudan.

Santino Akot is nine.

A slender boy tending cattle at the edge of his village, Marial Baai.

Until this moment, he is a middle child in a middle-class family with seven children.

The second Sudanese civil war was a part of this life. His father had died from war-related disease. Eighteen months earlier soldiers had taken his family's property and burned their home to ashes.

His mother made a hut and kept them alive.

The soldiers are back now.

Killing.

Burning.

Destroying.

Old people -- including Santino's half sister -- are shoved into one home by the soldiers, who burn the home to ashes.
It's time to make a choice no nine-year-old should have to make.

All around him, people are running, blindly, seeing only what they run from.

Santino runs.

His childhood is over.
* * *
Few people know better than Santino what war takes and what it gives.

Nearly 20 years later, he sits in an American classroom at Doane's Lincoln campus , feeling vastly different from the other students.

How could he ever relay the devastation he saw as one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," a title given by international relief workers?

How does he explain in the land of Guitar Hero and letters to Santa, how it felt to yearn for peace?

Or the joy he felt in a refugee camp, attending school for the first time, a place where educational materials meant writing on Red Cross boxes with charcoal.

To Santino, education was a symbol of all the war could not take from him.

And in this campus designed for nontraditional learners, he soon fit.

When (Former) Doane College President Jonathan Brand handed him a bachelor of arts in public administration degree in May 2008, it marked another leg of his epic journey.
* * *
The journey begins in Sudan. Religion, Santino explains, is at the heart of the country's never-ending civil war. Northern Sudan is largely Muslim, while southern Sudan is largely Christian. The current phase of war began in 1983, pitting the Sudan People's Liberation Army and its allies against the government's military and allies.

Education was not much of an option for Santino before war. His family lived on the crops they cultivated and livestock they raised. His father wanted him to help with farming and cattle herding, Santino said, which left little opportunity for higher education. 

"My family was living a happy life, not expecting anything bad, when civil war erupted," Santino wrote in a senior biography as part of his Doane degree.

Soldiers destroyed their crops and took their cattle. A young brother and a sister were taken as slaves. Four years later, Christian Solidarity International, a group based in Colorado, bought their freedom, and they returned to the family. But his brother, gone during language-formative years, could not speak the Dinka dialect fluently.

When Santino ran, he had no idea how many were running with him. The few adults in the group made the decision to head across the East African Desert to refugee camps in Ethiopia.

Santino does not elaborate on the three-month journey, which, according to media accounts, included battles with thirst, starvation, wild animals, insects, disease, and war.

Red Cross helicopters dropped food and water to the refugees.

"We went through some terrible experiences to stay alive. I became an adult at a very young age. And the war deprived me of parental love from my mother," Santino said.

When he left Sudan, he hadn't learned to read or write. The years at the refugee camp in Ethiopia brought his first opportunity for education.

"When I got to go to school -- got the chance that I had missed -- I was so excited."

Students shared books meant for one; they wrote on cardboard boxes.

At the camp, he also was baptized into Christianity and given the name ‘Santino" by a Catholic priest.

When an Ethiopian civil war broke out, Santino recalled, "I was completely discouraged. I didn't know if I would ever get to go to school again."

They fled again -- another grueling trek-- this time to a small village in Kenya, to be received by U.N. representatives and transported to Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya.

He spent nine years in the refugee camp, receiving the bulk of his education.

He learned he was one of 26,000 dubbed the "Lost Boys."

A program to relocate to the United States brought elation and disappointment to the refugees. Letters posted on a board announced who was selected. Catholic Social Services selected Santino's application - making him one of only 4,000 given the chance to come to America.

"The others knew we would not forget them. We send money back to friends or relatives."

The paper tacked to a board changed his life.

He started calling himself a Nebraskan as he waited for his flight to the United States.

He stepped off the plane June 6, 2001.

He shared an apartment with three other "Lost Boys," and in a few months was making it on his own by serving as an interpreter of the Dinka language, a job  that gave him an opportunity to interpret for the Lancaster county court, a church, workforce development agencies, and the Department of Health and Human Service, while also working at Cook Family Foods.

He made it, he says, because of people he will remember for the rest of his life.

He enrolled at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, where he credits Lou Mittan, a TRIO/Student Support Services program assistant director, for helping him succeed in higher education.

She convinced him to work less and allow more time for study.

His story isn't complete, he said, without also mentioning the family that helped him again and again.

Chris and Kelley Baker were mentors to one of his roommates those first months in Lincoln. When they brought his roommate a Christmas gift, they left presents for everyone in the house.

They were angels in Santino's eyes, angels who later helped with tuition money, found him a math tutor, paid a rent deposit, donated money toward his mother's medical treatment back in Africa - even provided him a free place to live for several months.

"I am privileged to know all of these individuals," he said.

A talk with Steve Millet, a Doane adjunct professor teaching at SCC, led Santino to enroll at Doane in 2006.

From the start, Santino said, "I liked Doane very much - it is like a family to me, but I worried much about falling asleep in class because of my two jobs."

He drank gallons of coffee and somehow balanced his jobs at the SCC learning resource center and Cook Foods with up to four Doane classes a semester.

Angie Klasek, Lincoln Undergraduate Program Services Coordinator, saw Santino's desire to earn his bachelor's degree in every aspect of his educational journey.

"Santino knows what it's like to make sacrifices to reach a goal" she said.

His presence at Doane helped his classmates, too.

"We are honored that he shared part of his life with Doane. His experiences helped students learn about the world first hand," she said.

Larry Hadfield, an adjunct professor of business and political science, recalls the day the issue of terrorism came up in a Contemporary Politics class.

"Santino was up on the floor, saying ‘Let me tell you how it really is.' Providing that kind of insight benefited everyone."
What impressed him most about Santino was "the sheer level of his effort," Hadfield said - from finding a way to learn and express opinions in a second language to his work ethic.

"His senior seminar was something special. It made you begin to understand the intellectual effort he is capable of."
* * *
Santino became a U.S. citizen on April 17, 2007.

It rivaled proud days that followed one year later. A few days before commencement at Doane, he earned the Alumni Senior of the Year award.

And on a perfect spring day in May, he posed for pictures in cap and gown, clutching his diploma. 

"It was a beautiful day for me. I was so happy. I didn't know if I would make it to the end."

His journey will not be done, he said, until he finds a job that matches his public administration degree, and he starts the process of bringing family to join him.

Some of his family lives in Uganda. His mother lives in southern Sudan. Over the past seven years he has made brief return trips to see them.

His goal, he said, is to work with the public and give back to the communities who gave him so much.

His dream job?

"Working with the United Nations. Being on the other side of the relief efforts."

He knows as well as anyone how those efforts change a life.