This month, one of the big news stories is about parents who bribed and cheated to get their kids into prestigious universities.

By Malaka Gharib

And then there’s the college admissions story of John Awiel Chol Diing.

Diing, 25, is a former refugee from South Sudan and grew up in U.N.-supported camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. His family couldn’t even afford high school fees, let alone college tuition.

But today, thanks to an unlikely series of events, he is a student at Earth University in Costa Rica, finishing up his fourth year studying agricultural science.

Diing, who is tall, lean and soft-spoken, was in Washington, D.C., this week for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs‘ Global Food Security Symposium. He was there to network with policymakers in his field, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the World Bank.

Diing talked to NPR about his grandmother’s advice (and mattress) — and how two scholarships changed his life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you were 4 years old, in 1997, your family fled the civil war in South Sudan. What was it like going to school at a refugee camp?

When I was a young boy, there was only one textbook — the one the teacher used to teach the class. We learned underneath a tree. We used the dirt on the ground as a chalkboard. Still, I was always in the top of my class.

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