The Best Student I Ever Had Was a Refugee


I have had many memorable students over the years. Since 2003, the class I’ve taught most frequently at my university – nearly every semester – has been one of our staple courses, “Introduction to Biological Anthropology.” In all, I estimate that I’ve had nearly a thousand students enrolled in that one course.

Out of those thousand students, the single best one (the one who received the highest grade) was a Sudanese refugee named ‘John’ (a pseudonym). He got every exam question right, mastered every essay and assignment, and also received every available extra credit point. That was nine years ago.

I actually had two students from Sudan that semester, part of the generation of “Lost Boys,” and I got to know them both a bit. The other student performed very well too, by the way, only not as well as John (then again, no one else did either). They both told me that they lost their entire families when they were about six or seven years old, that they walked incredibly long distances from Sudan to Ethiopia and eventually to Kenya, where they grew up in a refugee camp. There they gained an education, and one of them told me that they had a saying: “Education is my mother and my father.” With their families gone, education would be their ticket to a better life, and they took this very seriously.

As young men, a number of “Lost Boys” were resettled in the United States, and these two came to our university. At the end of the semester, after calculating final grades, I asked John “How did you do this?!” I have had many impressive students, but I have to admit being a little awestruck that someone with his life story could have outperformed all of them.

He told me that education was all the most important thing in his life, and that he was determined to make something of himself in order to be able to help people back home one day.

I’m still inspired by these two students, and I occasionally mention them to my classes, hoping that they’ll serve as inspiration. They also make me wonder what other untapped human potential must exist among the other millions of refugees in the world, whose lives have been ripped apart by armed conflict, through no fault of their own, and who are then forgotten.

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