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By Alexis Garrett Stodghill

Morris Kaunda Michael spent his formative years struggling with his family in a refugee camp after fleeing Sudan’s civil war. Now 23, he has just graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor of science degree in biomedical engineering. Despite the sunny smile and youthful glow that is common to students, Michael’s path to accomplishment was far from typical. A top-performing student according to his professors, he started life facing harsh deprivations — but this did not stymie his desire to develop. Yes, he grew up in a refugee camp where “there was a lot of hopelessness,” Micheal said. Yet he always strove to be his best.

Michael’s family escaped the civil war in Sudan, which killed two million people and displaced four million others. Leaving behind everything they had, Michael, his mother and seven siblings settled in a Kenyan camp. Michael struggled under these circumstances as a boy, playing soccer and attending school when possible from 1994-2001. Then, a chance opportunity broadened his horizons. reports:

In 2001, his luck began to change. He was offered a scholarship at a school in Nairobi run by Dominican nuns called the Emmanuel Foundation. His older brother attended the same school, and from there they began the process of applying for resettlement in the U.S. […]

In December 2003 he came to the U.S. with his older brother and was placed in the care of his foster mother, Carol Karins, in Syracuse, N.Y. He said his new home was affectionately called the “U.N. of Syracuse” because Karins hosted a number of refugees from other countries […]

Michael said he had never even thought of going to college until he came to the U.S. As a high school student, he loved math and science, so his guidance counselor suggested he look into engineering programs.

“I owe a lot to a lot of people,” Michael said. “Columbia, I would say, was the family I always wished to have. They helped me a lot.”

Still, the academics were challenging. “I felt really humbled. I didn’t feel like I was among the smartest in the classroom. I had to always work very hard. It encourages you — you don’t do well today, you work harder and then the next day, you’d probably do fine.”

Morris Kaunda Michael has done more than fine. In addition to graduating from a challenging engineering program, Michael also co-created a fetal monitoring device with a group of students that won a national prize. And he is not stopping there. Now applying to medical schools, this Sudanese whiz kid plans on using his talents to help others. Michael has plans to alleviate suffering in third world countries when he has finished his studies.

He told “The Today Show”: “There are a lot of refugees out there struggling. They feel like they don’t really belong anymore. They feel like they’ve lost it. There is no chance they can get up and do it anymore. So I wanna tell them that they can do it. I am here. I tried my best. I am not the smartest person, but I tried; I worked hard.”

What an amazing example of making the most of one’s opportunities, no matter how humble your beginnings.

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