Class of 2021: Master’s student is bringing hope through education to war-torn Sudan

Ryan Boyette took a dangerous leap of faith in 2003 and moved to the remote, war-torn Nuba Mountain region of Sudan. The people living there were suffering horrific atrocities perpetrated by the government, and Boyette was determined to show their story to the world.

Ryan Boyette, recipient of the Virginia Haynes Redfield Scholarship (John Russell, Vanderbilt University)

He started earning their trust and friendship through eight years of humanitarian work. When the war broke out, he partnered with the Nuba people to create a wrenching series of videos and first-person testimonies that exposed the extreme violence. His efforts soon caught the attention of human rights advocate and actor George Clooney, who later wrote letters of recommendation for Boyette and his Sudanese wife, Jazira, as they applied to Vanderbilt—she for her undergraduate degree and he to the graduate program in international education policy and management at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

Now the Boyettes, through their work at Vanderbilt, are answering an emphatic plea from the Nuba people: help rebuild the region’s fractured education system to change the future of Sudan.

“In every village we visited,” Boyette explained, “when we asked families about their greatest needs, they would say, ‘Yes, we need water, and yes, we need food. But what we really need is education. If we don’t get education, we’re not going to get out of this conflict.’ They see education as a long-term solution to combating the oppression in their country.”

To Move Mountains

“When we asked families about their greatest needs, they would say, ‘Yes, we need water, and yes, we need food. But what we really need is education.'” –Ryan Boyette

Boyette is using his master’s degree to further the work of the education nonprofit To Move Mountains, which he and Jazira launched a few years before coming to Nashville. “I’ve realized how difficult our plans would’ve been to accomplish without Vanderbilt,” Boyette said. “I had the God-given inspiration, but I really was not equipped to run an education organization until I started learning the skills I’ve acquired here.”

Drawing on expertise and research from Peabody professors and knowledge gained through their classes, the Boyettes are working with educators and parents in Nuba to design a curriculum for the specific needs of about 1 million young people. Two Peabody alumni on the To Move Mountains staff are helping create the curriculum, and Boyette has partnered with a graduate-level human and organizational development class to draw up a curriculum evaluation plan for the teachers in Nuba.

As part of that process, the team has welcomed the input and partnership of residents in the region, including conducting a large education conference in Sudan in February 2021 to gather feedback from teachers, parents, students and community leaders.

“We introduced different types of curriculum, and we let them really pick it apart and decide what would work best,” Boyette said. “It was awesome watching the Sudanese teachers singing and chanting, ‘Curriculum, curriculum!’ They see its exciting potential.”

Training future teachers

Another important goal of the plan is to create a pipeline of future educators in the region who are trained in modern teaching methods. Boyette and his team traveled to villages and recruited 25 teenagers to attend a school in Uganda, where they’re receiving training to become teachers in the Nuba schools.

“In the Nuba Mountains, where quality education is rare, one educated person in a village has such a great impact,” Boyette said. “The student teachers are starting to see that, and they’ve said to me, ‘Wow, a child that I’m going to educate could be the next leader of Nuba and could lead us into a place where we feel like first-class citizens in our country.’”

Vanderbilt partners

After Commencement, the Boyettes and their two young children plan to go to their home in the Nuba Mountains for several months and then return to Nashville. Ryan will continue the curriculum work with their Vanderbilt partners, and Jazira will finish her undergraduate education degree at Peabody. Ryan said the couple counts on their faith to support them through this arduous and exciting journey.

“God has given us grace and favor in Nuba to work so well with the people, who have been oppressed and marginalized for hundreds of years,” he said. “In the past, education has been used as a form of oppression against them. We feel blessed to help fulfill their dreams of instead making education a pathway for the future.”

This profile is part of a series of stories and videos highlighting undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2021.