The story of Changkuoth Gatchay's journey to Southwest Minnesota State University began in the womb of his mother in Sudan, Africa, some 19 years ago.
It was from that war-torn country that his parents fled to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. His mother was pregnant with Gatchay during the journey. He is the first of the couple's six children, and it was at that camp where he was born.
His parents asked for, and received, asylum in the U.S., and were sponsored by a Presbyterian church in Rochester, N.Y. They made the journey to the U.S. two years after arriving at the squalor that was the refugee camp. A family in Rochester helped the refugees acclimate to life in the U.S., which was difficult.
Gatchay is the 2014 winner of the William Whipple Scholarship and will be honored at a reception Thursday, April 24, at noon in the Whipple Gallery on campus. He is a Political Science and Philosophy double major who graduated from Fulda High School.
The William Whipple Arts and Humanities Scholarship is awarded to an academically outstanding student, junior or senior, within the disciplines of arts and humanities.
After four years in Rochester, Gatchay's family relocated to Omaha, Neb., where a large population of Sudanese immigrants lived at the time.
"From there, we moved about every two or three years," said Gatchay. "We lived in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. When my parents moved to Storm Lake (Iowa), we lived there for five years. That's where I started high school. My parents got a mortgage on a house. By the end of my sophomore year my mother had wishes to relocate and was experiencing health issues. Her insurance wasn't covering what she needed, and with her not working, it made it tough on my father to keep up with the bills."
Thus began another winding journey, this one back to Rochester, N.Y. and, later, back to the Midwest, where they landed in Worthington. It was there that his father and mother found work at the Swift packing plant.
"Most of my father's work has been on the line," said Gatchay. "They are both pretty much functionally illiterate. They get along OK, but it's been difficult for them."
When he reached his teenage years, Gatchay's father talked to him often about the importance of an education.
"I was involved in Knowledge Bowl and speech (in high school), and a Knowledge Bowl adviser at our school recommended SMSU," he said.
It was one of his wisest decisions.
"I love how you can have such close interaction with professors, you can build relationships with them," he said. "There's a real community feel here, an atmosphere that I like. It's not too large, and at the same time, small enough. I've met a lot of people, formed meaningful relationships, and I like the large number of clubs and organizations you can be a part of."
When he graduates May 10, Gatchay wants to give back to mankind.
"When I was 14 or so, I started to get these feelings of national pride for my homeland," he said. "I have an interest and a desire to contribute to public service and the betterment of the lives of people who remain there. I thought political science would be good to learn about how government works.
"As for philosophy, I wanted to open my mind, to consider the deeper questions about life. That will allow me to gain a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me, and to be more informed and aware of the complex issues that all humanity has to deal with, and how to address those."
Graduate school for international affairs is in his future.
"I'd like to work on an international scale with non-governmental organizations and others on the ground doing philanthropic and humanitarian work," he said.
Gatchay is the first in his family to attend college and is a source of pride for his family, which now lives in Slayton.
"Education means a lot to my family," he said.
He has been involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, the Political Science Club, Philosophy Club, College Republicans and Model UN.
Gatchay has a glass-half-full personality, and is appreciative of the opportunities he's had since arriving in the U.S., generally, and at SMSU, specifically.
"I like the campus, it's affordable, and I like the tunnels," he said with a chuckle. "I'm glad I came to SMSU."