Storm Laker Promises Tears of Joy at BVU Commencement

BVU double-major Nyajouk Lam reflects on a path marked by war, relocation, and sacrifice. She will be the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Buena Vista University senior Nyajouk Lam gets a bit teary-eyed during Finals week while talking about how she’s trying not to become teary-eyed.

“On Saturday, I’ll become the first person in my family to graduate from college,” she says, pausing to take a deep breath. “It is hard to not be emotional about that.”

Lam, a double-major in communication studies and psychology, reflects with pride on the long route she’s taken that will culminate when BVU President Joshua Merchant presents her with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Lam, who was born in South Sudan, moved with her family to Ethiopia when she was 6, escaping a civil war in the process. War among tribes then erupted in Ethiopia, leaving Lam with memories of bloodshed in the streets of the city in which she lived.

“I remember that our house in Ethiopia was made of mud and the bottom of the house was being fixed,” she says. “My family went to stay with a neighbor and we were there when fighting broke out. We hid in the home as rocks and bricks were being thrown. A rock came through the door and missed my face by a few inches.”

“On Saturday, I’ll become the first person in my family to graduate from college."

Nyajouk Lam

Representatives from the United States showed up days later and presented opportunities to those who wished to flee. Lam’s family settled in Phoenix, Ariz., for six months, then moved to Storm Lake, following extended family members who came before them.

“I came to Storm Lake in January, just after I turned 11,” Lam says. “It was the first time I ever saw snow.”

Lam began learning English as a fourth-grader at Storm Lake’s West Elementary School, picking up portions of the language in class and then at home as her older cousins translated English words into her native Nuer.

“I missed family members back home in South Sudan, but I also knew we had opportunities here,” says. “I wanted to make the most of my life.”

Lam participated in four sports during her four years at Storm Lake High School. She played trombone in the band, served in the school’s international club, and worked as a lifeguard at King’s Pointe Waterpark Resort on Storm Lake’s lakefront.

As an eighth-grade student, Lam met Kacie Woodley, a BVU volleyball player who volunteered as a mentor in the BV Buddies program. Three years after they met, Woodley was a BVU senior, advising Lam, then a high school junior, on the early stages of her search to find a college.

Lam considered the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, Central College, and Augustana University. Ultimately, she eschewed them all for Buena Vista University, where she earned a Multicultural Scholarship covering tuition costs.

“I had people I knew in Storm Lake and at BVU, people who cared about me,” she says.

Lam recalls making a handful of close friends in her first week or so as a freshman, lifelong friends who will join her in walking back through the Victory Arch on their way to Commencement on Saturday.

“I’ve given campus tours for Esprit de Corps at BVU and I’ve been very careful not to walk through the Victory Arch in my four years here,” Lam says with a laugh, citing a popular BVU superstition. “You always hear that you’re supposed to walk through the Arch just twice when you’re an undergrad; once on your first day as a freshman and then once on the day you graduate.”

“I missed family members back home in South Sudan, but I also knew we had opportunities here. I wanted to make the most of my life.”

In her time at BVU, Lam has played softball, participated in the BVU Psychology Research Club, and helped present a research paper at a conference in Chicago. She’s vice president of community relations for Student MOVE and public relations officer for BVU’s Black Student Union. She’s also a MELT participant and actively engaged in both the co-ed and women’s Bible study groups.

Her plan is to work this summer at a summer treatment program at Florida International University’s Behavioral Health Center in Miami, Fla., while completing applications to graduate schools. She aims to earn a master’s and one day work as a child adolescent psychologist.

“I took Abnormal Psychology with Dr. Tracy Thomas (BVU assistant professor of psychology) and something clicked,” Lam says. “What I learned there connected back to a Peer Review and Peer Practicum experience I had with Faith, Hope, and Charity when I was a student at Storm Lake High School. I knew I’d found what I wanted to do.”

After earning her bachelor’s, she’s moved one step closer. She says that fact will hit home as she takes a step through the Victory Arch on Saturday and catches a glimpse of her mother, Mary Lok, who sacrificed much for her youngest child, the first one to earn a college diploma.

“When I competed in a scholarship showcase to earn my scholarship at BVU, they called and asked my mother to come to the principal’s office at Storm Lake High School,” Lam remembers. “And then the principal called me out of class to report to the office.”

Nyajouk Lam wondered what she had done wrong. She hadn’t, of course. She’d done it just right.

“Zoey Breese, who worked for BVU Admissions then, met my mother and me in the office that day,” Lam says. “She had flowers and balloons and gave us the news about my scholarship.”

She recounts the scene, pauses and takes a deep breath. “My mom started crying,” she says.

As her voice cracks ever slightly, she smiles and says, “I know I am going to cry this week at some point.”