"I thought I was going to drop the class the second week," said Ajak, a junior engineering major. "I asked myself, ‘How much do you want to do it? What are you willing to forego?' So I focused intensely. I did the work over and over and over again."
Ajak has learned much about fortitude in his 25 years. He was born in South Sudan in the midst of a bloody civil war that has left two million dead and an additional four million displaced. Along with his mother and two sisters, Ajak left his homeland at the age of four.
"We were running away from the enemy," he said. "We did not have a destination in mind."
They spent a year in a Ugandan refugee camp, then wandered for three more years, going without food and water at times, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. "Many people died along the way," Ajak said.
"It was basically taking it day by day," he said. "When we heard shooting, we had to change course. Our thoughts were, ‘Keep moving forward, and always keep the enemy behind.'"
Amid the chaos, Ajak became separated from his mother and sisters. Eventually, he was picked up by workers from the United Nations Refugee Agency and taken to a refugee camp in North Kenya where he spent 10 years. Ajak was safe but alone.
Conditions in the camp were primitive-single-room huts and no running water or electricity. It got very dark at night and Ajak got creative, applying scientific principles he learned in his United Nations-sponsored school. Lining up discarded batteries inside a piece of folded Manila paper, he attached a copper wire on one end and a bulb on the other. "It was my homemade flashlight and other people used it to find things at night," said Ajak. "I was happy I could help people with simple science knowledge."
After a decade in the refugee camp, Ajak was deemed one of South Sudan's "Lost Boys" and eventually selected to come to the United States. He did not know where he would be sent.
On Feb. 1, 2006, he arrived in the Quad Cities, a place unlike any place he'd been. He was amazed to find job opportunities, police security and enough food, he said. Members of First Lutheran Church in Moline, Ill., sponsored Ajak, "and became like family to me."
Ajak wasn't looking back any longer. He began looking forward.
He obtained his general education diploma at the Black Hawk College Career Center and eventually began studies at Black Hawk College. "School was my number one focus but I had to go slowly, to work many hours to pay my way," Ajak said.
Starting out at Hon Industries in Muscatine, Iowa, he sent part of what he earned to his mother and a sister, who he had learned were safe back in Africa.
During his early studies, Ajak connected his aptitude and appreciation for "figuring things out" with the field of engineering.
"Engineering is the umbrella; it teaches you how to think," he said. Calculus too became part of his understanding of the world. "It gives us a different way of looking at the world, seeing it in small bits, yet always interconnected. Every action creates a reaction."
It would be five years before he would be ready to transfer to a four-year college.
"I didn't think I could possibly go to St. Ambrose because of the cost," said Ajak. But someone at his sponsoring church suggested he visit the school. "I visited with Erin Girsch in admissions and we went over things. She was very gracious and spoke of many things," Ajak remembered. "I thought to myself, ‘Okay, maybe there's a place for me at St. Ambrose.'"
Spring 2012 turned out to be another milestone in Ajak's life. In January, he started his first semester at St. Ambrose. In March, he became a U.S. citizen. In May, he received an $8,000 National Science Foundation scholarship grant, awarded by St. Ambrose.
"Diing is mature beyond his years," said Assistant Professor of Engineering Jodi Prosise, PhD. "Besides being an excellent and hard-working student, he exudes a quiet strength, a humility and a respectfulness toward all."
After earning his degree, Ajak plans to work in a manufacturing or health-care setting. While he points to the fun and challenge of coming up with new or improved designs and systems, he also sees engineering as a way to improve the lives of others.
No longer does Ajak look back in fear. He has come to accept the opportunities life is offering. He dreams of the day he might bring his mother and sister "home" to him.
"I do not want the difficulties I've gone through to define me," he declared. "It's going forward, to create yourself anew. With the help of many along the way, I am changing the trajectory of my life. What I want to achieve for myself, but also what I can do to help others."