WATERVILLE — South Sudanese twin sisters Achen and Apiyo Charles were beyond thrilled to graduate Saturday from Thomas College after having been born in a refugee camp in Uganda and coming to the U.S. when they were 6.

Theirs was a long, hard road to success, but they traveled it with perseverance, optimism and the memory of their late father, who insisted they get a good education.

“It’s really bigger than we ever could imagine – it really is,” Apiyo Charles said Wednesday, three days before commencement. “We’re living the American dream.”

The twins, 21, were among about 185 students to receive degrees Saturday at the Harold Alfond Athletic Center on the Thomas campus. Achen and Apiyo received bachelor’s degrees in psychology, with Achen having minored in diversity and Apiyo in business. Since they earned credits prior to enrollment at Thomas, they finished in three years.

Achen is headed to the University of Southern Maine to pursue a master’s degree in counseling with a clinical mental health concentration while working as a behavioral health professional in Portland; Apiyo will study for her master’s in business administration at Thomas and has a job as a mental health worker for MaineGeneral Health.

More than 2,000 people packed the athletic center Saturday where college President Laurie Lachance greeted guests and introduced commencement speaker Kristen Miale, director of the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. Class speakers Shawnna Leigh Frost and Sydney Alexis Plourde also addressed the crowd.


Achen and Apiyo Charles’ family and friends cheered the twins on as they marched into the center to the music of bagpipes. Their mother, Ataro Charles, 51, visiting the campus for the first time, said she was very proud of her daughters.

“I’m very happy to see them graduate because their father passed away in 2012 and I thought maybe because of that hardship, may not be able to graduate,” she said. “I’m very proud of them and everything they’ve accomplished.”

The family’s youth pastor, Bill Bila, was sitting with several youth from his church, First Gospel of God in Portland.

“They are truly amazing twins,” Bila said. “I am very proud because they stayed strong and today, we are celebrating them.”

On Wednesday, Achen said her long-range goal is to become a clinical mental health counselor; Apiyo said she hopes to be a clinical mental health psychologist and own a family business.

Their parents fled war in South Sudan many years ago and were placed in a refugee camp in Uganda where Achen and Apiyo were born in 2002. When the twins were 6, they arrived in the U.S. with 10 other siblings and settled in Portland with their parents, who had 23 children between them. Eleven remained in Uganda, but the family sent, and continues to send, money to them for housing, food, clothing and school. In 2012, their father, who had been a university math teacher in Uganda, died after being hospitalized in Maine with a stroke, heart problems and pneumonia.


When he became sick, their mother worked four jobs, including as a mall janitor, housekeeper and caretaker, the twins said. She continued to support her children in the U.S. and Uganda and Achen and Apiyo worked during college to help her send money overseas to their siblings.

“My mother plans to bring them over here but the process of getting (an immigration) visa is a hard process,” Apiyo said. “For us, it took a really long time to come to America.”

The twins recalled arriving in Portland and understanding little, as they knew only their native language, Acholi.

“We didn’t speak a word of English, we never even saw white people until we came to America, we didn’t eat food in school because we were like, ‘what is this?'” Achen recalled. “We were bullied because our clothes, culture were different.”

Apiyo said there were no translators to help them maneuver their way.

“We came here in wintertime and we had never seen snow,” she said. “We had no sweaters, no jackets, we came with T-shirts and shorts. We would do stupid stuff, like wash dishes with cotton candy because we didn’t know what it was. It was definitely a big learning experience.”


At Thomas College, where they felt accepted, supported and encouraged, they thrived. They paid for tuition with scholarships, grants and loans, got excellent grades and were dormitory assistants. Apiyo played soccer and ran track and the sisters were co-presidents of the international club on campus. Apiyo was president of the Black Student Union and Achen was vice president. They were involved in Jobs for Maine Graduates. Achen spoke last month at the State House in Augusta about programs that help students begin and complete their education.

They made the president’s list for students who earn above a 3.8 grade point average. They were invited to the honors convocation. They will leave Thomas with loans of only between $15,000 and $17,000 each.

“I love Thomas,” Apiyo said. “I wouldn’t have changed it for any school.”

Her sister agreed, saying the small setting was the perfect environment.

“I feel if I were in a bigger college with more students, I would not have received the help I got here,” Achen said. “Here at Thomas, everything is such easy access.”

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