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TIno Nyawelo fell in love with physics as a high schooler in South Sudan. With the help of teachers, mentors and outreach organizations, he left the violence of his country to pursue graduate studies in Europe, and eventually joined the U physics faculty. Now, he shares his love of science with refugee youth struggling to adapt to the Utah school system.

“I’m originally from South Sudan. In high school, I had a great teacher called Andrew Makur, who encouraged my interest in physics. He was an engineer. I looked up to him and said, ‘You know what? This is what I want to become.’

I was up against a lot. When I decided to do physics in high school, my parents weren’t enthusiastic about it. In a third world country, what are you going to do with a degree in physics? I knew that I had to push it all to the way to the end and get a PhD.

I did my graduate studies in theoretical particle physics in Europe, but during that time I was also traveling back and forth to Utah to visit my wife — her family was resettled here after fleeing violence in South Sudan. The University of Utah gave me a desk to work, and eventually hired me to the physics faculty.

In 2009, our community started noticing that we had high rates of refugee kids dropping out of schools. I see myself in those kids who are brought here as a refugee, maybe haven’t had schooling in the camps, and have no English. It’s such a big transition. When I moved to Europe, it was my first time leaving my country and everything was in English. We thought, ‘Let’s start addressing this.’ So, we started an after-school program to help those kids with homework, expose them to math and science, help them attend college.

I’m so passionate about this because I got a lot of help with my education. Mentors and outreach programs in Sudan linked me to my PhD and post-doc studies in Europe, and I didn’t pay a penny for my education. That was something that gave me a good feeling, and want to give back. The satisfaction you get by helping a person in need, you can’t compare to anything.”

— Tino Nyawelo is the director of the Refugees Exploring the Foundations of Undergraduate Education in Science (REFUGE) program, director of diversity & recruitment at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education, and assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy

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