Willing and wanting to make a difference in someone’s life has always been USD alumnus David Jal’s philosophy.
Originally from South Sudan, Jal was separated from his family at the age of 10. He lived in a refugee camp until he was 19, when he came to South Dakota.
Jal, who graduated from USD in 2001, currently works as a court services officer in Sioux Falls. He’s also the founder of the Khor Wakow School Project, a nonprofit committed to providing education to Jal’s village.
He first returned to South Sudan in 2010, and has since made several more trips.
Carole Cochran, the South Dakota KIDS COUNT Coordinator, traveled to South Sudan with Jal in 2010. She was there when he reunited with his mother, after more than 20 years of being apart.
“I didn’t know the language, but I think you can tell when a mother hasn’t seen her child, and especially a son,” she said.
The Khor Wakow program was in its infancy at the time, Cochran said.
“We met with the chiefs and the elders about the Khor Wakow school and building a school, and if they would make some land available for that, and talked about what other things that they needed,” she said.
Cochran said she’d like to go back to South Sudan, but wants to take a longer trip next time.
She said Jal has worked “very diligently” to make his mission a reality.
“There are a lot of people who are involved, not only on the board, but just overall who understand what David wants to do, which is give back to his community, even if he’s living far away. And the biggest thing is education, I think, for everybody. We’re not just talking about kids of school age, but even adults as well,” she said. “It’s gone from an idea to something that’s real.”
A commitment to education
Jal first came to South Dakota when he was 19, so he wasn’t allowed to go back to high school like he initially hoped.
“Desire for education was number one. I wanted to educate myself,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it for me, I wanted to do it for my parents, because I was the first generation to have (this) opportunity to get the chance to be able to go to school in my family.”
He started at USD in 1998 and graduated in 2001.
At first, Jal only wanted to become a teacher. But after a professor in the social work department suggested he take a few electives, he “fell in love” with the major.
“It was quite an experience going through USD,” he said.
USD is where he met his wife, alumna Janeane Jal. They have four kids, ages 13, 12, 10 and 6.
“It was just a blessing, something I will always remember,” he said. “And I hope my kids go to USD, too.”
Jal said he still keeps in touch with many people he met at USD, including associate professor Debra Norris, Cochran and others. He and his family visit Vermillion several times a year, he said.
The support Jal received at USD and in Sioux Falls is what made him who he is today, he said.
“I want to give back that courtesy that was given to me by others. So I wanted to make sure that I’d do what is best to make this community special, or I can extend a hand to somebody who can receive the service I received when I first came here,” he said. “And I think that is what makes social work special for me.”
Cochran has known Jal since he was a USD student, when they attended the same church.
“David is a very good friend,” she said. “He’s real positive and very happy and upbeat, in spite of a lot of the tragedies that he’s had in his life.”
A desire to help
A USD ethics class inspired Jal to want to be a positive influence on children who’ve only known violence and conflict, since that’s also a reflection of his own childhood.
When he went home, he said he saw 6- and 7-year-olds carrying AK-47’s. A child soldier himself, Jal said education has the power to change perceptions.
“So because of the opportunity of the education that I received here at home, I was thinking about education,” he said.
Brynne Spargur, a first-year law student, worked with Jal two summers ago as an intern in the Sioux Falls probation office.
“He’s probably like the calmest person you’ll ever meet and he’s very, very nice. He’ll help you out with anything,” she said. “I just liked his positive outlook on life, especially with everything he’s been through.”
Spargur, who a graduated from USD in 2016 as a social work major, said she and Jal still talk very regularly.
Learning more about Jal and the work he does with the Khor Wakow School Project made her want to help people as well, she said.
“He puts so much work and effort into that, and I think it’s amazing,” she said. “But he cares so much about the people over there. I just really loved that.”
Though she couldn’t go on the most recent trip to South Sudan because she was just about to start law school, Spargur said wants to go with Jal eventually.
“Someday, I’ll go,” she said.
Jal’s advice for students who want to make a difference and help others is to not make it about themselves.
“I want them to do it for the calling they have in their heart to make a difference,” he said. “Because if you do it for yourself, it becomes self-centered. You’re looking at you rather than wanting to make a difference in someone’s life. Always, always be positive.”
Spending almost every day at the same desk with Jal for a summer left a strong impression on Spargur.
“He’s grateful of everybody he meets. He loved USD, everything he learned,” she said. “He’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet.”
Jal said now that he’s living in South Dakota, he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I don’t know what life would be like for me, to be honest,” he said. “The people here are so nice. You walk down the street, people are waving at you, just – it was home.”