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NewsMay 13, 2021

‘Lost Boy’ finds path to help international students succeed

Double alumnus Aleer Deng '21 reflects on journey to master’s degree

Table of diplomas

This month, Aleer Deng will become a double graduate of Lesley University, adding a master’s degree in International Higher Education (IHE) to his 2009 undergraduate degree in business management.

It’s an accomplishment that would be meaningful for anyone, but for Deng it’s especially poignant.

“I want to not only move up to other opportunities, but I want to be able to help others that are new in this country to learn from my journey,” he says.

Deng’s journey has been a long and difficult one. At the age most kids in America start kindergarten, Deng, along with 20,000 other children, fled his village in South Sudan and traveled hundreds of miles on foot to Ethiopia to escape civil war and capture by rebels, becoming one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Aleer Deng smiling at camera while in procession at Commencement
Aleer Deng received his bachelor's degree in business management from Lesley in 2009, only a few years after coming to America as a refugee of civil war in the Sudan.

When war broke out in Ethiopia, Deng returned to South Sudan for a time before traveling to Kenya, where he lived in a refugee camp until, at 17, he was given a pathway to citizenship in the United States.

Arriving in another new country was jarring for Deng, who didn’t know much English. He was welcomed into the home of a family in the semi-rural coastal town of Duxbury, an affluent enclave south of Boston.

“It wasn’t easy leaving my country and my parents and not know when I would be able to see them again,” he says.

Joining the high school soccer team gave him community and camaraderie.

“Being in an environment where I felt like I was winning and I was losing with other people helped my mind focus.”

After high school, Deng matriculated to Lesley, graduating with a bachelor’s in business at the height of the Great Recession. The period between his first and second stints at Lesley was marked by highs and lows.

Finding work was difficult in 2009, but Deng eventually landed a job as a purchasing coordinator for a Boston law firm. He got married, had a daughter, and reconnected with his father, who was still in Sudan, and his mother and siblings, who had immigrated to Australia.

But while visiting them and looking for work Down Under, Deng’s family in America was falling apart. His wife filed for divorce and, for a time, he was unable to get in touch with his young daughter. Upon returning to the United States, he says, “Things did not go well for me.”

Employment, again, proved elusive.

“When I decided to go back to school, I was actually homeless. I had been living in my car for some time,” he says.

Aleer Deng and his daughter
Aleer Deng with his daughter.

Even as he looked for a job that would get him back on his feet, Deng knew he wanted to do something more with his life. He began scrolling through the master’s degree programs at Lesley and settled on the IHE program, which prepares students for jobs ranging from study abroad advisors and global volunteering opportunities to recruiting and supporting international students.

“I had a lot of people that sacrificed to help me navigate through life. I want to also be able to help others navigate through life in this country,” says Deng.

Even with this goal in mind, he lost his resolve at times.

“Some people have mentors and families, and I don’t have a lot of that. My professors served as mentors,” he says. “Not having a home, trying to succeed in classes, there have been times I fell behind on my work.”

Deng shared his situation with Associate Professor Jay Jones, who helped him communicate with his other professors, and also walked through Deng’s options with him.

“The biggest thing was that he had not done very much visioning of what he wanted to do in his life. It was not a question that came readily to him. He spent a lifetime of reacting to the demands of the environment,” says Jones.

Aleer Deng with his father in Sudan
After years of separation, Aleer Deng was reunited with his father, who lives in South Sudan, and his mother and brother, who live in Australia.

As his advisor, Jones, along with other professors in the program, helped Deng to explore the career options available to him and to identify growth areas.

“There is little that is more gratifying than to see a student find themselves and their aspirations before your very eyes. That is the treasure of this work,” Jones says.

Deng’s professors offered him extensions when he needed them and helped him through bouts of self-doubt.

“Without them, I don’t think I would have finished this program,” he says. “Lesley has been a great support for me.”

Knowing how he’s benefited from support throughout his college career, Deng now looks forward to helping other international students as they adjust to life and school in America.

“I want to help them succeed. I want to pay it back and try to help other people navigate life in this country.”