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'Struggle And Success Are A Package'

Eric Whitney

High school students are used to being told how important education is, and that hard work brings success. Those messages don’t always resonate when they’re delivered by teachers and parents, but today hundreds of Montana students heard about hard work and suffering from a different source.

The source is John Dau. He’s one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan.” They were the thousands of child refugees who fled fighting in southern Sudan in 1987 and spent over a year wandering in the desert. Many died, and many survivors, like Dau, were re-settled in the United States. Dau has written two books about his experience.

One of those books was an option for a summer reading assignment at Sentinel High School in Missoula.

Jalyssa Swenson, a sophomore at Sentinel read Dau’s, 'Lost Boys, Lost Girls.'

"It was definitely, like, an eye-opener for like what's really going on in the world. other than the U.S.," she says. "We’re kind of pretty safe here."

Swenson really liked Dau’s book. Thursday, she’s going to get a chance to hear Dau himself speak. The Montana World Affairs Council brought him to Missoula to speak at several venues, including an assembly at Hellgate High School for about 500 students from 5 local schools.

"I’m really excited," Swenson says. "I actually read the book to my stepdad. I read it out loud while we were hunting actually," she laughs. "He really liked the book, too. He's like, 'can I go? Can I go? I want to see, I want to hear what he has to say.' "

Swenson’s stepdad will get a chance to hear what Dau has to say. In addition to the assembly at Hellgate High, Dau is also giving a public lecture at the Doubletree Hotel in Missoula Thursday night.

And he’s not just speaking to people in Missoula.

Credit Eric Whitney
John Dau addresses students at four different Montana high schools through Missoula's Inspired Classroom facility.

Dau also spent a couple of hours at Missoula’s “Inspired Classroom” this morning. The Inspired Classroom is basically a video studio that links up schools across the state. Dau stood in front of a green screen with a map of Africa superimposed behind him. In front of him was a camera beaming video of him to schools in Lincoln, Chinook, Bozeman, Darby and other locations. Those classrooms have cameras of their own, so Dau could see the students he was talking to, and take their questions.

Mark Johnson, a Great Falls native who served as a US ambassador in Africa, started Montana’s World Affairs Council to do things just like this.

"This is an attempt to do something that is very simple but sometimes very hard, and that is to bring the world to Montana classrooms." Johnson says.

"I always joke that the reason I started the council was that I didn't want any 18-year-old in Montana to be as ignorant of the world as I was, when I was 18. I grew up in Great Falls, and the world simply did not matter. We didn't care, we didn't think about it. Even though we had this little dark cloud called Vietnam about to approach, we went about our lives. These students don't have that luxury, if you will, of turning off and tuning out the world"

Johnson sat in on Dau’s virtual lectures to kids around the state.

Credit Eric Whitney
Missoula's Inspired Classroom connected Dau and students across Montana by video link.

"I thought it was very moving and frankly, very emotional," Johson says, "as we were watching it, literally we had tears in our eyes listening to his story." 

"I think that was very powerful, and also when he spoke directly to the Montana students, and talked about struggle and success and why you have to have both, and why education is so important, using his own experience, and saying how lucky these students are. But yet, knowing that they have their kind of problems; single parents and so on and so forth and broken homes, why it's important. That's their ticket, education is the key to them, and why it is so important that they continue that. I thought that was very powerful."

Dau spoke at length about his experiences. About sleeping outside at night without a blanket, keeping watch against attacks by lions and other wild animals, about walking across a thousand miles of desert barefoot, eating grass to survive and going without water.

His message to students is simple.

"You too, if you want to be liked, you want to be successful, you want to do something, you have to go through toil," Dau says. "You have to go through suffering. I know these are common sense. But common sense are not common sense until you actually understand them.

"Do not forget that struggle and success is a package. Struggle and success is a package. Do not choose that I want to succeed and I don't want to struggle. The never come that way."

John Dau, author of Lost Boys, Lost Girls and God Grew Tired of Us, speaks Thursday night in Missoula.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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