Twenty-four-year-old South Sudanese refugee, Nhial Deng, has been named the winner of the Global Student Prize 2023, a $100,000 award given to one exceptional student that has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and on society beyond.

Deng was selected from almost 4,000 nominations and applications from 122 countries around the world. He accepted his award in New York during UN General Assembly week.

Deng empowered over 20,000 refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya through peacebuilding, education, and entrepreneurship programmes, as well as creating a safe space for young people to heal from their trauma. He follows in the footsteps of 17-year Ukrainian student, Igor Klymmenko, who won the Global Student Prize in 2022 for developing a drone that detects landmines.

The Global Student Prize was launched in 2021 by in partnership with the Varkey Foundation. A sister award to’s $1 million Global Teacher Prize, the Global Student Prize was established to create a powerful new platform that shines a light on the efforts of extraordinary students everywhere who, together, are reshaping the world for the better. The prize is open to all students who are at least 16 years old and enrolled in an academic institution or training and skills program. Part-time students as well as students enrolled in online courses are also eligible for the prize.

Deng’s story is extraordinary. Until the age of 11, his childhood was relatively peaceful, living in a village in the Gembela region of western Ethiopia, where his family moved to from Ulang, South Sudan during the first Sudanese civil war. Here, he would go to school in the mornings and play in the river with other kids in the afternoons. His father owned a small radio and men from the neighbourhood would join him in the evenings to listen, analyse the news and discuss world affairs. Deng imitated the news anchors, and this was his first inkling of becoming a journalist.

However, one morning in 2010, this life vanished in the space of a few minutes. Gunshots announced the attack of a militia: Deng had to flee as the village was burnt to the ground. Two weeks later, after a traumatic journey, walking hundreds of kilometres for days, alone and without family, he reached the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which would become his home for the next decade. However, the journey meant that he was separated from his mother and six siblings for 12 years – a crushing loss at such a young age.

In the refugee camp in 2017, he founded the Refugee Youth Peace Ambassadors initiative, working on peacebuilding, youth empowerment, and social entrepreneurship that offers workshops, mentoring sessions, sports activities, and community dialogues, impacting over 20,000 young people in Kakuma and recognized by organizations including the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Crucially, it also acted as a safe space for young people to heal from their trauma.

In 2021, he created SheLeads Kakuma, a leadership, advocacy, and mentorship programme for young girls and women to promote gender equality in several refugee camps, with help from a grant from global advocacy organization Women Deliver, connecting young refugee girls and women with female mentors worldwide.

When the COVID pandemic struck, Deng set up a digital awareness campaign to tackle misinformation, focused on credible sources such as the World Health Organization and the Kenyan Ministry of Health. These efforts helped reach over 40,000 people in Kakuma and Kalobeyei with life-saving information about the virus.

Deng continues to work on projects to assist life in the camp, such as the Kakuma Book Drive – a global student-led solidarity movement that aims to mobilize 10,000 textbooks and laptops for people to use. He will allocate 50 percent of the prize money to the construction and sustainable operation of the Kakuma Leadership and Innovation Centre in the Kakuma refugee camp, where a library and innovation hub will be based to host all the books and tech support he is collecting.

Deng moved to Canada in 2021 to attend Huron University, Ontario, where he is currently studying global studies and communication on a full scholarship, with a study permit and refugee status.

Congratulating Deng, Heather Hatlo Porter, Head of and Chief Communications Officer of Chegg, Inc, said Deng has overcome unimaginable adversity to keep fighting for a better future, not just for himself, but for thousands like him.

“In times of crisis, we need innovation and resilience, and Nhial’s commitment to tackling the global refugee crisis is truly inspirational,” Porter said.

“Nhial’s journey also echoes the perseverance of countless students throughout the world who, despite overwhelming odds, show great courage to keep studying and keep striving for a brighter tomorrow. Now, more than ever, students like Nhial deserve to have their stories told and have their voices heard. After all, we need to harness their dreams, their insights, and their creativity to tackle the daunting and urgent challenges facing our world,” he said.

Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation, said Deng’s “deeply moving story shows the transformational power of education, and the vital role that it plays in building a better tomorrow for us all”.

Applications and nominations for the 2023 Global Student Prize opened on 19 January and closed on 14 May. Students were being assessed on their academic achievement, impact on their peers, how they make a difference in their community and beyond, how they overcome the odds to achieve, how they demonstrate creativity and innovation, and how they operate as global citizens.

If students were nominated, the person nominating them was asked to write a brief description online explaining why. The student being nominated was then sent an email inviting them to apply for the prize. Applicants were able to apply in English, Mandarin, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.