Nicholas D. Kristof
New Haven, Conn.: Paul Lorem epitomizes a blunt truth about the world: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
Lorem, 21, is an orphan from a South Sudanese village with no electricity. His parents never went to school, and he grew up without adult supervision in a refugee camp. Now he’s a freshman at Yale University.
All around the world, remarkable young men and women are on edge because today they finally hear of admissions decisions from Yale and a number of other highly competitive universities. So a word of encouragement: No one ever faced longer odds than Paul Lorem, and he made it.
“How I got to Yale was pure luck, combined with lots of people helping me,” Lorem told me as we sat in a book-lined study on the Yale campus. “I had a lot of friends who maybe had almost the same ability as me, but, due to reasons I don’t really understand, they just couldn’t make it through. If there’s one thing I wish, it’s that they had more opportunity to get education.”
Lorem’s family comes from a line of cattle-herders in the southeastern part of South Sudan. The area is remote. Villagers live in thatch-roof huts, and there is no functioning school or health clinic. The nearest paved road is several days’ walk away.
As Lorem was growing up, the region was engulfed in civil war, and, at age 5, he nearly died of tuberculosis. In hope of saving his life, his parents dropped him off at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. They returned to their village and later died, and Lorem was raised in the camp by other refugee boys who were only a bit older.
Boys raising boys might seem a recipe for Lord-of-the-Flies chaos, but these teenagers forced Lorem to go to school, seeing education as an escalator to a better life. And Lorem began to soar.
His class sometimes consisted of 300 pupils meeting under a tree, and Lorem didn’t have his own notebooks or pencils or schoolbooks, but he practiced letters by writing in the dust. His friends died of war, disease and banditry, but he devoured the contents of a tiny refugee camp library set up by a Lutheran aid group.
Teachers took increasing pride in their brilliant student and arranged for Lorem to leave the refugee camp and transfer to a Kenyan school for seventh and eighth grades. That way he could compete in nationwide exams and perhaps get into high school.
Just one problem: Those exams were partly in Swahili, a language that Lorem did not speak. But he poured himself into his schoolwork, and classmates helped him. Lorem ended up earning the second highest mark in that entire region of Kenya.
That led to a scholarship to a top boarding school near the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and then to the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. On his school vacation between junior and senior year of high school, Lorem undertook an epic journey across Africa to his native village. Then he guided his younger brother and sister to the refugee camp where he grew up so that they, too, could get an education.
Lorem loves Yale, but, academically, it has been a tough transition, partly because English is Lorem’s fifth language (he also speaks Didinga, Toposa, Arabic and Swahili). Jeffrey Brenzel, the Yale admissions director, puts it this way: “On the one hand, these adjustments are greater for him than for many, but, on the other hand, he has already overcome far greater challenges than other students have just to get here.”
The vast majority of children in poor countries never enjoy such opportunities. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of all children completing primary school by 2015 will almost certainly be missed. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain is calling for the creation of a Global Fund for Education to help meet the goal, and I hope the United States backs the initiative.
Lorem plans to return to South Sudan after graduation to help rebuild his country. As I interviewed him in the tranquility of Yale, he choked with tears as he recalled the many people who had helped him: the boys in the camp who looked after him; the German nun, Sister Luise Radleimer Agonia, who enveloped him in love and helped pay his school fees; the bus driver in Juba, South Sudan, who put Lorem up in his shack for weeks while he struggled to get a passport to travel to Yale.
Education is the grandest accelerant for human potential. So congratulations to Lorem as well as to college applicants who receive great news today — and let’s work to help all those other Paul Lorems out there, at home and abroad, step onto the education escalator.
Kristof is a New York Times columnist.