In 1990, while South Sudan was in the middle of its second civil war, Nyereath Nhial’s father got a chance to resettle in the United States. But it would be three more years before Nhial’s mother and four older siblings were able to leave the refugee camps and join him in the West.
Nhial, a 2020 UC Santa Cruz graduate who was born in San Diego County, knew her family’s saga but wanted to explore more deeply the stories of women in the deadly conflicts that had wracked South Sudan rather than the men that history usually centered on. As part of a research project, the sociology and critical race and ethnic studies major began a series of interviews with Sudanese refugee women—mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers.
“It was one of the hardest projects I’d ever embarked on,” Nhial said. “It was intellectually challenging and pushed me beyond my limits.”
The result was a senior seminar research project titled, South Sudanese Refugees and Youth: Complex Narratives of Gender, War and Diaspora, which was awarded the prestigious Dean’s Undergraduate Research Award in 2019.
“That was a huge moment for me,” Nhial said.
But it wasn’t the only moment for the College Ten student who graduated from Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley, Calif. During her four years at UC Santa Cruz, Nhial was also president of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority on campus and was honored for having the highest GPA (4.0) of any member of the sorority in the state. She was a student mentor for the Educational Opportunity Programs on campus, worked with students at Soquel High School, and completed an internship with a youth community garden project in San Diego. In what she called a pivotal moment, she also was one of only two undergrads invited to join a graduate seminar by Assistant Professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Savannah Shange.
In September, Nhial will be moving to Japan for at least one year to work as an assistant language teacher and a cultural ambassador with the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (JET).
“I like to push my boundaries, to go out of my comfort zone,” Nhial said.
She plans to continue to focus on youth, the South Sudanese diaspora, and marginalized communities in the U.S., she said, with the possibility of working in higher education someday.