HUMANS OF THE U: TINO NYAWELO

“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

We’ll be featuring Humans of the U and sharing their stories throughout the year with the university community. If you know someone with a compelling story, let us know at ThisWeek@utah.edu.