After walking for days on end, tramping from country to country to avoid being murdered, earning a master’s degree may seem a lark by comparison.
MTSU instructor Alier Reng, who was known as Johnson Reng until he legally changed his name earlier this year, was born in the southern region of Sudan in Africa in 1981. His father worked for missionaries as a security officer.
When the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out in 1983, the northern army of President Omar al-Bashir’s administration, recognized as one of the world’s most despotic regimes, would not let the elder Reng accompany his family out of harm’s way.
Despite the overwhelming physical and political perils Reng’s family endured, he knew that he would have to make it to the United States. Even during his days as a graduate assistant, students often sought out Reng to answer their math questions. But memories of the turmoil he left behind are never far from his thoughts.
His father escaped to join the family in 1985, but Reng’s mother died that same year of a water-borne disease. By 1987, the family was forced to seek refuge in Ethiopia. They walked for 30 days.
“We lost some of our brothers and friends on the way,” Reng recalled in an interview for WMOT-FM’s “MTSU on the Record.” (Listen to Reng’s interview here.)
“Some of them drowned in some of the tributaries of the River Nile. Some of them were eaten by wild animals like hyenas, lions and so on. Some of them were eaten by crocodiles.”
No sooner had they become adjusted to the Spartan conditions there than the Ethiopian government was overthrown in 1991, forcing the family to an Ethiopian town on the border with South Sudan. After living there for seven months, the Rengs heard that the Ethiopian army was en route to destroy the town.
The United Nations evacuated the Rengs in the summer of 1992 and took them deep into Kenya, where they lived for nine years before coming to the United States. There, along with 16,000 other refugees, they endured sickness and starvation until 1994, when the United Nations constructed barbed-wire centers to dispense food.
Through Lutheran missionaries, Reng made it to the United States. He became a naturalized American citizen in 2007 and earned his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Texas at Dallas the following year. He received his master’s degree in professional science from MTSU in 2011.
Karen Case of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences mentored Reng when he first arrived at MTSU. She says he was exceptional, both academically and in the way he adapted to the American culture.
“Now he inspires his own students and youth groups by telling them a little bit about his story, about what he has overcome,” Case said. “He assures them that, if he can achieve what he has, then they should be able to do math with his patient guidance.”
For now, Reng makes ends meet as an instructor in MTSU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences and part-time worker at Home Depot. However, he wants to obtain a doctorate and put his talents to work in his country of origin.
Returning to South Sudan might be somewhat easier since the nation broke away from the Khartoum regime and obtained independence in 2011, even though the violence continues.
“It was shocking news because we had never envisioned it happening during our lifetime,” said Reng. “But when it happened, we knew through the blood of our heroes, we knew that one day, one time, we were going to gain our independence.
“And what gave us hope during the struggle was the verse from the Old Testament, Isaiah 18. In Isaiah 18, they talk about tall, skinny, smooth-bodied people whose country is intertwined by rivers. And, if you go deep into the Bible, that is South Sudan.”
— Gina K. Logue (Gina.Logue@mtsu.edu)