Growing up in South Sudan, nearly his entire life has been spent in the shadow of conflict. Through great perseverance he managed to complete high school, however he was never able to attend university. He nevertheless continued to educate himself as he worked for the U.S. Government, the World Food Programme, and served as the Minister of Health in the Bahr el Ghazal State. His successes in work, his drive to continue to educate himself, and support from his colleagues made him an unusual but welcome MAHA student. Many students noted how much they learned from Tong because of his deep experience dealing with crucial humanitarian and health issues.
Nationality: South Sudanese
Tell us the story of how you came to Tufts. I first learned about Tufts in 1997, during the famine in Bahr El Ghazal, when I worked with Sue Lautze [faculty at the Feinstein International Center at the time]. I was a field monitor and helped her as a translator and researcher. She was the first person who told me about the university. After working with the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, I went to work for the World Food Programme–there, I met a lot of Tufts folks including, Dan Maxwell, John Burns, and Kalamen Osen. This is how I learned about the MAHA program specifically.
The first time I came to the US in 2011, I went to Washington DC for training. Afterwards, I came to visit Tufts since I had heard so much about it and wanted to see it. From that moment I knew I wanted to come back.
In 2017, I met Dan during his research on the famine in Bahr el Ghazal. We discussed my dream to come to Tufts and the challenges I would face. Although I didn’t have an undergraduate degree, I shared my CV and Tufts allowed me to apply. I took my chances, and in January in the middle of the night I got very good news: an acceptance letter. I was so excited about it, and I told my reference—a Fletcher alumna who was my boss at USAID—right away.
Once I was accepted, the next great obstacle was financial aid. I had been working but was about four years without a job due to the crisis in my country. When Dan came to South Sudan, we discussed the issue of funding. At that time, I had a pension with the government, however, they would not give it to me – an issue that many face, as local people who were laid off have still not been paid.
I raised $5k, which was enough to come to the States. I was able to get a stipend to stay here and also to be able to support my family. Part of the issue of coming here was that I had to be able to support my family back home while I was away. They, too, had to endure this situation.
What is something you learned that you expect to help you in your career? When you spend your life in one field, you may think you know it all. I’ve been in humanitarian work for 20 years, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about it. However, while studying here I realized that I am only an expert in the areas where I worked, both in Sudan and South Sudan. For example, I was reviewing a document for Ethiopia, which is just next door to me, and learned that it operates very differently.
What is something that would surprise your colleagues at home? People were so surprised that I was able to come here in the first place, being from South Sudan, which is one of the red-light countries for the current administration. They were also shocked that I was able to finish this degree in only one year’s time! They didn’t expect me to complete my studies this quickly. I had to work very hard to do so. In fact, I worked at Ginn Library until 1am when it closed. Then, I would move to another building, Tisch Library, because its quiet room closed at 3am. I would even say that I spent more time in libraries than I did in my home.
What are your plans after graduation? Right now, working at home is my best option, however, I don’t have a job lined up at the moment. With the current economic and political conflict in South Sudan, it means that I won’t be able to work for the government. The situation in my country is not stable, so even if I get a job with the government, the jobs are constantly changing. Therefore, I’d like to work with a UN agency in South Sudan, but if I don’t get anything permanent, I can do some consultancies with INGOs or the UN or pursue further studies that will help me better contribute to the future of South Sudan.
What should potential MAHAs know before they enroll in the program? First, I have two classes to recommend. US Diplomatic Trade Craft is taught by Anthony Walter Baird, a member of the state department. This class will help you better understand international relations with a broader scope. The second class I recommend is taught by the medical director from BU who is also a Fletcher graduate, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia. Her class is called Health, Human Security, and Emerging Pathogens. Both classes were half a semester, and really helpful courses because we are often working in places with health outbreaks, like cholera.
My second piece of advice is about where to live. I was unable to live on campus because I only got my visa two weeks before school started and all the Tufts housing was full. I thought it was a bad thing, but it actually turned out to be a positive one. I found a place a 25 minute walk away. The distance from school helped keep me in the library. Otherwise, if my home were close by, I would have gone home for a nap after class, and been distracted by calls from home. Also, walking ensured that I got exercise!
What has scholarship support meant to you? I feel very privileged and honored to have been admitted and given the opportunity to study at Tufts University in the United States of America. I will never be able to adequately express how much my family and I truly appreciate the scholarship. I will cherish the knowledge I gained this past year and cannot wait to apply it to my work. I came to Tufts University with humanitarian knowledge limited to South Sudan, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. During my studies, I was able to equip myself with global humanitarian knowledge, which I will be able to apply where I may be assigned.