Commencement Stories — Alwail Ring

Creative writing major/women's studies minor has many stories to tell

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Alwail Ring will graduate from UC Riverside on June 15, 2014 with a degree in creative writing and a minor in women’s studies. Photo by Ross French

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Alwail Ring will be carrying on a family tradition when she receives her bachelor’s degree in creative writing on June 15. Like her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother, the 22-year-old Ring is a storyteller.

“The greatest feeling is when someone reads my work and they have an emotional reaction to it,” she said. “I want to reach people, to have a connection with them.”

Born in Sudan, Ring and her family are Dinka, but lived in the northern city of Khartoum. The family fled the country in 1998 to escape the bloodshed of the 22-year-long civil war, in which more than 2 million people were killed and more than four million displaced. After spending 18 months as refugees in Syria, the family came to the United States in 1999, settling in San Diego.

Being so young, Ring doesn’t remember much about the reasons for leaving, but other memories of her childhood are crystal clear, including a family photo taken in their last weeks in Sudan.

family portrait

The Ring family in a photo taken in September, 1998 in Khartoum, Sudan. From left, father Francis, brother Majok, Alwail, mother Adau and brother Agoth. Photo courtesy of the Ring family

“My parents took my brothers and I to a photographer there to get a professional family picture done and to get our passport pictures taken,” she recalled. ” I think I was the only one not distracted in that picture. My brother, Agoth was crying because he didn’t want sit still and take a picture and my mother was fussing over him. I remember my dad trying to get my brother, Majok, to look  straight ahead at the camera and — in the middle of saying ‘look’ and pointing at the camera — the picture snapped.”

She also recalls the many stories told by her family members, and the comfort that they brought her.

“I remember being told stories by my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother,” she said. “I grew up around stories and I was very attached to them.  When I was old enough to read, I sought these stories out. And in time, when I was in the fourth grade, I decided I wanted to write them as well.”

The first story Ring remembers writing was in the sixth grade. A story based on the children’s book series “Bunnicula,” about a maybe-vampire rabbit who sucks the juices out of vegetables.

The family found a home within the Sudanese community in San Diego.

“It is a very open and welcoming atmosphere,” Ring said. “You feel like you are a part of something. Everyone knows you. You call everyone “Uncle” and “Auntie,” even if you aren’t a blood relation. It’s a way of establishing kinship. You take care of the little ones, everyone is involved. Everyone is welcome, and everyone takes care of everyone else.”

Ring’s parents, Francis and Adau, always emphasized her position as a role model for her younger brothers Majok and Agoth, and as well as for the other young people in the community.

“My parents wanted me to set an example for my brothers and others,” she said. “To go to school, to get good grades. The kids who are in college, they are looked at as role models for the younger ones to follow. What you do doesn’t just affect your family, but everyone else in the community as well. ”

She attended University City High School in San Diego, and then chose to attend UC Riverside because of its offered creative writing major. She continued to challenge herself academically, adding a minor in women’s studies and studying the Arabic language.

“When I was looking through the catalog and saw the program, I got excited. Being a creative writing major would give me the chance to write my own stories and to learn from other writers,” she said, adding that she plans to pursue a master of fine arts in writing after taking a year off. “Eventually, I would like to teach creative writing, as well as write books for kids. I would like to tell stories for and about people who look like me who never get to see themselves as the main characters in the majority of books, people whose stories are similar to mine.”

She found new communities to be a part of at UC Riverside, and was struck by the atmosphere of the campus.

“Something I appreciate about UCR is how friendly the people are and how inviting the campus is. You can just run into people and have a conversation,” she said. “There is a warmth here on this campus, and that is important because it creates a great learning environment where you can form bonds with other people. Even though we have different majors and different goals, we are all on a path to a common goal in life. I think that is kind of important.”

Ring made her contribution to that atmosphere by serving as a peer mentor for incoming freshmen through the African Student Programs office, and became involved with the student organization U-TOUCH, which works to empower women and girls in Uganda by providing technology, training, and mentoring. The group raises funds and awareness,  and also participates in regular Skype calls and “pen-pal” exchanges with students in Uganda.

“We talk about their lives, their hopes and our lives and our hopes,” she said. “They want to go to college, they want to be teachers.”

Ring said that she sometimes wonders how her life would have been different if she had stayed in Sudan, and, now that the war is over, she looks forward to a day when the family can return for a visit. But she has no regrets and is grateful to her parents for making that difficult choice so many years ago.

“My parents didn’t want to leave their home, but they made the decision that we had to leave,” she said. “Everything I have is thanks to them.”

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