The 24-year-old will return to his African homeland next month, but this time with a college degree and dreams of rehabilitating his country.
Mayai and two others of the remaining cadre of more than 20,000 young boy refugees who fled Sudan in 1987 are no longer lost. The three will graduate from the University of Utah on Friday with aspirations of continuing on to earn a doctorate or a law degree.
"Education is my mother and my father," Mayai said. "Having grown up by ourselves, we see ourselves rehabilitated through education. Our parents could be dead, but we see that education will speak on our behalf in the future."
Mayai, James Garang and Philip Awan never dreamed they would earn college degrees as they traveled as part of the group of lost boys, landing in a Kenyan refugee camp for almost a decade before the U.S. government brought roughly 4,000 of the Sudanese refugees to America. About 140 of the young men came to Utah in 2001.
The memories of those days as young boys walking parentless toward peace are vivid for Mayai as he prepares to don cap and gown for Friday's ceremony. While he has earned accolades for his academic research, he recalls when success was measured simply by surviving another day.
"The life was about thinking, I'll just die, I won't live to see the day. No one among us had even thought of going to college," Mayai said, recalling how he ate leaves and sucked water from mud to survive. "It has given me the strength to have a life anywhere and the strategies I can apply in any community."
That strength translated into academic determination for the three soon-to-be graduates. Mayai will graduate with honors in sociology and will prepare to earn a joint law degree and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Garang will leave the U. with honors in economics, and Awan will receive his degree in psychology.
All three of the former lost boys started their Utah education at Salt Lake Community College, moving quickly through their associate degrees to get to the U. Mayai even scored 96 percent on his math college entrance exam, a feat he credits to the makeshift classrooms in the Kenyan refugee camp.
"He had more drive and determination and discipline than I see in most students," Rebecca Utz, a U. associate professor of sociology, said of Mayai. "He never even realizes that 'Hey, my life was different and I've come so far.' He doesn't use it as a crutch."
Utz worked with Mayai as a mentor, helping him through a string of ambitious projects and a culminating thesis on the psychological and health troubles of the lost boys.
But Mayai doesn't want his research to end with his diploma on Friday. Instead, he will travel back to Sudan this summer on a research mission to learn how to bring peace and productivity to his African home.
Awan plans a trip to Sudan this year, hoping to use his psychology skills to counsel people who lived through the country's prolonged civil wars.
"I really want to help the people back there. That's one of my dreams to go home and make change," Awan said.
The trip, however, means returning to a home that exists only in hazy memories for the three lost boys. Awan's mother and father both died after he left the village, and Mayai does not know what became of his family. A broken phone call last month with a brother in Sudan is the only contact he has had with his family for almost 20 years.
"It's different there," he said. "I don't think I'll remember it."
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