Agut Odolla, May 19 McDaniel grad, to use experience as refugee to help others in need

Agut Odolla, who will be a McDaniel graduate after May 19, 2018, plans to use life experiences to help other refugees.

When Agut Odolla was 15 and started school at Patterson High School in Baltimore, she didn’t speak a word of English.

“I was placed in high school because I was already 15. They say in America when you’re 15, you’re supposed to be in high school. But when I was back home, I was only in fifth grade, so it was kind of difficult for me to be in high school while I’d never been to middle school,” she said.


In 2014, Odolla not only managed to graduate from the school, but came out on top as the valedictorian before making her way to McDaniel College. Now four years later, Odolla has another graduation to check off her list, coming out of the college in Westminster on May 19 with a degree in political science.

She’ll next head to graduate school at the University of Maryland to study social work.


Odolla plans to work with refugees and immigrants, something she always wanted to do, having been one herself. Her personal experience, she said, gives her something to offer others.

“I came to to the U.S. as a refugee, and I also know what it feels like,” she said.

Marquise Findley-Smith was brought up in a single-family household with his older brother and mother. He credit’s his mom’s sacrifices in life to make sure he stayed on the right path, and in the right school system.

On a Thursday in May, Odolla sits tall and confident in a conference room on McDaniel’s campus. Her jet-black hair flows down to just past her shoulders, a sharp contrast to the marigold-colored shirt she wears.

Nearly a decade after having come to the United States, she is much more surefooted than she once was.


“When I first came here I was just this shy little girl,” she said.

Now, things are different. Odolla speaks fluent English, though still with a heavy accent. She is stoic as she talks about her childhood — very matter-of-fact as she describes a devestation that sent her fleeing from her home country.

But as she talks about the future, and trying to help others, her eyes shine.

After grad school Odolla hopes she’ll be able to get a job with an organization like the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Relief Services. The IRC, which has an office in Baltimore, “responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future,” according to its website. Catholic Relief Services does somewhat similar work, focusing on “impoverished and disadvantaged people overseas,” according to its website.

Odolla’s journey began in Ethiopia, where she lived in Gambella with her tribe, the Anuak. But in the early 2000s, genocide sent her and her family to Kenya, where they stayed for about four years before making it to the United States and Baltimore City.

Her time spent in Kenya was at a refugee camp, arriving in 2006 and staying until 2010. Life was difficult, she said, because there wasn’t enough food or water. But there was nothing they could do. Supplies came twice a month, but there was never enough for everyone, Odolla said.

“There were so many people in the refugee camps,” she said

Odolla said it was a two-year process to get cleared to come through the United States. In 2008, her family began being interviewed, and it wasn’t until late 2010, early 2011 that they came straight to Baltimore.

They were placed there, she said, adding that “we didn’t know anything about America.”

And while the family had finally made it to the United States, the struggle to survive and find success was just beginning.

Things weren’t easy, Odolla said, because when she and her family came to Baltimore, they knew no one and didn’t speak the language. The family’s caseworker was helpful, she said, but because Odolla’s native language is so unique, the caseworker couldn’t find a translator.

“My older brother, who was also still learning English, became … the one translating for everyone in the family,” she said.

And as the second oldest in a family of eight children, Odolla said she, too, took a leadership role. She and her younger sister worked to learn English quickly so they could help the family with tasks like doctor’s appointments and finding work.

Savannah Dawson, who grew up on her family’s farm north of Westminster, said she’s the first in her family to have gone to college. McDaniel was never on her radar, but she and her mom were looking at schools and decided to give the college a chance. She fell in love and said, "this is home."

Odolla went through Patterson High School’s after-school refugee youth program, where she spent three days a week learning English and how to read and write.

“I would go there and I would ask for help,” she said, doing all she could to get better.

Odolla said she worked hard — after school, she was at home doing schoolwork and studying.

“The high school I went to was not very good. It was not good,” she said of Patterson.

But she tried her best because she knew she wanted to go to college.

School is so important to her, she said, because as a child she didn’t have the opportunity to attend. She didn’t go to school until she was 11 years old.

It made the transition into Patterson that much harder, but she didn’t give up.

“I was really scared and nervous because I didn’t really know anything so how am I supposed fit in?” Odolla said. “I tried my best to do all I could to learn English fast.”

Amy McNichols, associate dean of international and intercultural programs, has known Odolla since she started at McDaniel, and has seen her grow over the past four years. McNichols oversees McDaniel’s international initiatives, including the Global Bridge program, of which Odolla was a part of.

McNichols said Odolla has been a “rock-solid student since she got here.”

Odolla was able to go abroad during her time at McDaniel to the Budapest campus, McNichols said.

“She was really talking about a lot of interest in understanding the refugee crisis in Budapest, she said, later adding, “she wants this to be her life’s work.”

Odolla is going to be a “gift to people in social work” because she has a sensitivity, and has been through so many struggles, McNichols said.

“She’s very, very driven and very, very humble at the same time,” McNichols said. “That is a combination that you don’t see very often.”

Odolla has worked voraciously to attain her academic goals, she said, and she is going to do everything she sets out to.

“She’s going to go very far,” McNichols said.

For Odolla, having made it through high school, on to college and into a master’s program means a lot, because she’s the first female in her family to ever graduate from high school, let alone college.

“That’s why I want to go to grad school because I want to continue with my education and I want to get a job where I’ll be helping others,” she said. “I feel like there’s people out there that need help.”