June 15, 2022

From Lost Boy to Award Recipient: Daniel Akech’s Inspiring Journey

2022 DREAM & BELIEVE AWARD RECIPIENT: IMS doctoral student Daniel Akech.

When civil war tore apart the African nation of Sudan over a period of more than 20 years, it tore apart families, too—and many Sudanese embarked on dangerous journeys to escape and find refuge outside of the country.

Among these refugees were a group that came to be known as the “Lost Boys,” some 20,000 orphaned boys who sought food and safety in camps in bordering Kenya and Ethiopia.

One of Sudan’s lost boys is Daniel Akech, a doctoral student in the university’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS) and the latest recipient of this year’s Pamela M. Mullin Dream & Believe Award.

Akech is the first IMS student to ever receive this prestigious award since it was created more than 20 years ago.

“I was totally caught off guard,” Akech said. “I was greatly surprised because it didn’t even occur to me that I was the one being recognized.”

The award provides an ongoing doctoral student with a generous stipend to continue their research and, as the late Pamela Mullin (a former CGU trustee) wished, help them to realize their dreams.

Mullin had one very important stipulation: The award must be a surprise. She wanted recipients to feel the shock and joy of receiving a major award seemingly out of the blue (the way that, similarly, many recipients of MacArthur “genius” grants feel).

Akech, who has overcome considerable challenges to become an outstanding mathematics scholar and an inspiring advocate for other refugees, received the award during this spring’s 95th Commencement ceremony.

Akech joined the commencement ceremony via Zoom, thinking that he was attending in order to celebrate his faculty advisor, Claremont McKenna College Professor Asuman Aksoy.

“I was told that Professor Aksoy was going to be recognized for her excellent advisory role,” he said, chuckling. “I had even prepared a sentence to thank her!”

First IMS Recipient

For the audience at commencement, IMS Director Ali Nadim read from Akech’s award citation to describe why he was an inspiring choice for this year’s award.

The citation praises Akech for his extraordinary determination in the face of war “from the sweltering classrooms of a refugee camp in Kenya to the Institute of Mathematical Sciences at Claremont Graduate University.”

The citation also poignantly describes how Akech turned being an orphan into an empowering motive for success.

“Without parents to guide you,” Nadim read, “education would become your parent and the pursuit of high-achieving academic excellence would be your north star.”

Akech received a standing ovation from the audience.

Graduate School & Advocacy

Akech explained in a CGU interview that he’d chosen this university for graduate school because of its membership in a dynamic consortium of schools. Admission to one school permits working with faculty from all of the colleges.

” The commutative offering of courses makes it hard to find another school that would offer so many advanced courses and the many faculty members one can choose to work with,” he explained. “It has been a pleasure working with Professor Aksoy, who has been giving me academic direction as well as moral support.”

Asked about his future plans, Akech said he doesn’t rule out the possibility of finding a post-doc position and working as a research mathematics professor in the field of functional analysis.

But mathematics is only one aspect of Akech’s busy professional career as an advocate on behalf of refugees.

His efforts include creating the Walking Buildings scholarship program, which is aimed at helping other refugees, as well as promoting nonviolent solutions in South Sudan through his writing.

Akech has published articles and commentaries about his home country in the Oxford Journal of African Affairs, openDemocracy, and on the Royal African Society site africanarguments.org. He is also the author of the 2021 book The Politics of Fear in South Sudan: Generating Chaos, Creating Conflict.

“I have been motivated by the question of how to use mathematics for the good of humanity and the environment,” he explained.

Protecting the Sudd

Akech said he is also very excited about his current work on an impactful initiative to assist South Sudanese experts, local communities, and government representatives with the design, establishment, and implementation of the new Sudd Conservancy initiative in South Sudan.

The Sudd is a vast wetland that sustains the surrounding communities and plays a powerful ecological role in the region.

Aerial view of the Sudd swampland in South Sudan. (photo: wikimedia commons)

Conservation efforts to preserve and protect the Sudd were constantly disrupted during the civil war. Akech says the new initiative is receiving funding and support from conservation organizations in the U.S., Europe, and Africa and will launch later this year.

While he continues with his doctoral work at CGU, Akech plans to commit three years to serve as the conservancy’s founding CEO.

“This new locally led and managed initiative is headed by me working with a dedicated team of South Sudanese supporters and stakeholders from the Sudd area,” he said.

Akech added that he is looking forward to the initiative’s creation of an integrated management approach that will, after many years, have brought together “conservation, climate adaptation and mitigation, security, and peace.”