On May 13, William Riak walked across the stage at SUNY Geneseo's commencement. When he was 8 years old, he fled his village in the Sudan, walking thousands of miles to save his life.
He and 30,000 other Lost Boys who lost their parents and families in the war journeyed across the deserts first to Ethiopia and then to Kenya, searching for safety. Only 10,000 of the boys survived attacks by lions and soldiers and starvation to reach Kakuma Refugee Camp.
They became each other's families. With a desire to learn, when there were no classrooms the boys gathered under trees and taught each other. Riak hoped for an education, but he never dreamed he would earn a diploma in international relations and political science at Geneseo.
"For me, back in the refugee camp, my ultimate goal was to finish high school and go back to Sudan to join the military," he says. "Getting a degree from a college was not in my mind."
Now, he believes it is better to "find a diplomatic way to bring people together, without fighting."
Riak is one of some 40 Lost Boys of the Sudan who immigrated to the Rochester area. He arrived in 2001 when he was 19 after a very long flight from Africa, not knowing the language or customs, having ever ridden on a plane or even turned on a lamp.
"Some of us had seen a light, but no one had ever used it before," says Riak, now 26. "It was really overwhelming ... Everything was new to us."
Volunteers helped him and his Sudanese brothers to settle into a city apartment, teaching them the basics — how to use a toilet, how to use the microwave and stove, and how to shop for simple things like packaged meat. Riak laughs remembering being introduced to his first plastic-wrapped poultry. In Sudan, they had chickens but no grocery stores. You were your own butcher.
"You choose it, you cut its throat, that's it," Riak says.
Communication was very hard, he says. He boosted his skills by taking English courses and practicing, often times having to repeat what he said several times when talking to new people.
At first, he says, he was afraid. Cultural differences were extreme and confusing. Everyone seemed to stay inside and to lock their doors. He thought it might be dangerous if he went outside; maybe people stayed in because they'd find trouble or get beaten up.
"Then I realized it was traditional," says Riak, who was used to being outdoors all the time, in his small village and at the refugee camp.
In eight years Riak has mastered English, become a U.S. citizen, earned his General Equivalency Degree and his associate's degree at Monroe Community College and obtained his four-year bachelor of arts degree. He even experienced the beloved traditional college life — living in the dorms.
Away from his Sudanese brothers and living on campus for the first time, Riak again found himself a bit afraid.
"When I went to Geneseo I thought I'd be really lonely because I came from a different country. To my surprise, even from the first time, people came up to me," says Riak, remembering the welcome he received during his first dinner in the dining hall.
"Then, from there, it was ..." he says, snapping his fingers and laughing.
His dream is to become a human rights lawyer and help other refugees acclimate to their new country, or defend their freedom in their homeland. He doesn't need to return to the Sudan, he says. He will go wherever he is needed.
That's why he chose Geneseo. Riak considered other colleges but Geneseo was the only one that offered exactly what he wanted — an opportunity to study international relations in an undergraduate degree program.
"I was really interested to be involved in the United States and use my experience as a refugee to help other people," says Riak. "That's what really motivated me."
Through Geneseo, he worked for three months in 2007 with the Genocide Intervention Network in Washington D.C., helping their effort with victims in Darfur and generating political support. He has also served on discussion panels about the Lost Boys, most recently on World Refugee Day in June. He is also a member of the fundraising committee for a new collaboration of Sudanese-led aid groups in the United States and beyond called the Hope of Sudan Alliance.
He sees himself as an ambassador. "It's really important to let people know" what is going on, he says. "If they learn something is wrong, they will speak out about it."
At MCC, Riak worked and studied full time. He never had time to make friends. At Geneseo, he could. "That was a great opportunity to meet a lot of people," say Riak.
He celebrated with some of those friends, including Casey Rampe, at his graduation party.
"He's got to be the most dedicated, hard-working guy I've ever met," says Rampe, who had been studying about the Sudan conflict when she met Riak. "This guy lives in the library."
Rampe says she would joke with Riak and tell him that he should just bring up a pillow and blanket and sleep among the stacks. "He'd go to the library and just leave for class, and stay there 'til eleven o'clock."
Their friendship has inspired her. Rampe says it's a good possibility that she will work with immigrants, refugees and migrant workers.
"I've seen how hard it is for an immigrant to come here. William had a strong support system ... and it would be really great if everyone came over here came with that sort of support system. It's not all from Will, but he definitely influenced it," she says of her career path.
His tassel now turned, Riak cherishes his time at Geneseo — students, faculty and the prospects his education has given him. He takes his LSAT exams for acceptance into a master's degree program Oct. 4. It is one more step for his goal of defending others.
"I'm really proud," says Riak of his accomplishments at Geneseo. "It opened a door for me."
Originally printed in the Geneseo Scene magazine, Fall 2008. Story and photos by Kris Dreessen