OPINION: Refugee’s wildest dreams come true. College then dental school

Niang Muang, pictured here shadowing a local dentist, has been accepted into dental school. (Courtesy of F.R.E.E.)
Niang Muang, pictured here shadowing a local dentist, has been accepted into dental school. (Courtesy of F.R.E.E.)

Credit: Courtesy of F.R.E.E.

Credit: Courtesy of F.R.E.E.

A few months from now, Niang Muang will head off to dental school at California’s Loma Linda University or here at Augusta University’s Dental College of Georgia.

She isn’t sure yet which one she’ll choose, but as any aspiring doctor will tell you, it’s a good problem to have. That’s especially true for Niang, who just a decade ago couldn’t imagine college of any kind in her future.

Miss Kelli, she said, changed that.

Miss Kelli is Kelli Czaykowsky, founder of the nonprofit Friends of Refugees Providing Education and Empowerment, also known as F.R.E.E.

I first told you about the mother of five back in March.

Ten years earlier, Czaykowsky was moved to respond to a group of Clarkston refugees who were pleading with school district officials to help them find better schools for their children.

ExploreWhy metro Atlanta nonprofit focuses on refugee kids education

They hailed from faraway places like Myanmar (formerly Burma), Iraq and the Congo.

Niang, who immigrated from Myanmar in 2008 with her parents and two siblings, was a sixth grader at Freedom Middle School, where the diversity made it difficult for teachers to focus on each student’s learning needs.

After meeting with parents in the area, Czaykowsky was able to secure scholarships for 12 children to attend the Duluth Adventist Christian School, the same school her children were enrolled in at the time.

Kelli Czaykowsky shares a light moment with one of the refugee children in Clarkston. (Courtesy of Allen Clark)
Kelli Czaykowsky shares a light moment with one of the refugee children in Clarkston. (Courtesy of Allen Clark)

Niang was one of them. She graduated from eighth grade from Duluth Adventist in 2013 and then from Atlanta Adventist Academy in 2017.

She wanted to go to college, but even then, it didn’t seem possible. Because of her family’s finances, a four-year college, in particular, seemed out of reach.

“It was Ms. Kelli that encouraged me to go to Southern Adventist University. I remember telling her I didn’t think I could afford it.”

Czaykowsky reminded her that she hadn’t gotten through high school on her own.

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“It was all because of God,” Niang remembered Czaykowsky telling her. “Let’s step out in faith and see what he does. If she wasn’t there to support me, I don’t think I would’ve gone or where I would be.”

Southern Adventist welcomed Niang with both merit-based and leadership scholarships. Donations from strangers covered any outstanding balances.

By her junior year there, Niang said teachers encouraged her to think about her career plans. She knew she wanted to go into health care. She just didn’t know in which area.

“I thought about doing medicine for a moment, physician assistant, nurse,” she said.

She decided on dentistry because of her experiences and the experiences of family members.

“I was able to affirm that this was a basic need everywhere and a place I could serve,” Niang said.

Last month, she learned she’d been accepted into Loma Linda and the Dental College of Georgia, her top two picks.

Czaykowsky shared the good news with me.

“I never doubted her but it was truly an accomplishment and goal beyond what we thought these children could achieve,” she said. “To have been accepted to both schools she applied to was amazing.”

Yes. It was also an answer to a prayer.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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