University of Vermont

The Newest Americans: Akol Aguek

(Photo: Bear Cieri)

Akol Aguek ’05 G’11 was one of  Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” a generation of young men displaced by brutality and civil war in their homeland. Profiled as a student in Vermont Quarterly in 2004, Aguek described the experience of being one of thousands fleeing across forest, desert, and river. Raising his voice and enunciating each syllable with care, he said: “You are running for your life!”

When Aguek came to Burlington, part of an asylum effort that brought 3,800 Sudanese to the United States in 2001, continuing his education was top priority. Aguek’s host, George Ewins ’55, encouraged him to look no further than his own alma mater.

After a year working in the stockroom at the local Sears store, Aguek enrolled and, a freshman at age twenty-five, moved into UVM’s Living and Learning Center. “I got involved, I enjoyed every bit of student life, I loved what I wanted to do,” he says.

Aguek is part of a refugee resettlement population approximately six-thousand strong in Vermont. Notable for its diversity with new Americans from Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia, Bhutan, Congo, Russia, Iraq and many more countries of origin, this shift in Vermont demographics has created a rich international community right at the university’s doorstep.

For Akol Aguek, UVM has long remained a home. Not long after graduation he began work in the admissions office and is now an assistant director focused, in part, on transfer student issues. His wife, Martha Thiei Machar ’11, is also an alum and added a master’s in accounting to the family collection of UVM degrees in May 2012.

From the time he arrived on U.S. soil, helping his homeland and fellow refugees has been a priority for Aguek. Portions of those first precious paychecks from Sears Roebuck Corp. were sent back to support Sudanese still in the refugee camps. In his duties at UVM he works with new refugees on college preparation through the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation and does the same with younger audiences at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington.

“Over the long run I may eventually go back to Sudan,” Aguek says. “Not that I would pack all of my belongings and leave, I will always have my roots in Vermont. I feel that sitting on the sidelines and seeing the government of South Sudan dysfunctional is not a good thing. I think going back and making a difference in terms of providing opportunities for needy people, education, healthcare, infrastructure, economic opportunities might be one of the areas I may be involved in.”

The next step in his life will move him a step closer to that vision. Aguek, his wife, and their five-year-old son Bior will move to Boston in the fall, where Akol will pursue a master’s in international affairs and social policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. As he looks to the future, Aguek’s gratitude for this admirable life he has built from a rare opportunity shines forth as he describes that day in the Kakuma Refugee Camp when he looked on the bulletin board and saw his name on a fateful list.

“The first question they ask is, ‘We want you to come to the United States, are you interested?’ And I say, ‘Of course!’” Aguek recalls with a laugh. “So when I had the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen, I said, ‘I have to become a U.S. citizen because it was America that said come. It was America that chose me.’”

This profile is part of the story "The Newest Americans" in the summer issue of Vermont Quarterly magazine. Read the full article.