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Africa's Ivy League hopefuls tell Trump continent is 'more than poverty'

Daniel Deng lists off his college applications: "I am waiting to hear from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Amherst and Babson colleges."

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David McKenzie (CNN)
JOHANNESBURG (CNN) — Daniel Deng lists off his college applications: "I am waiting to hear from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Amherst and Babson colleges."

It's a daunting catalog of some of the most selective universities in America. Yet Deng has no "safety school," and in fact, he seems pretty confident.

It's a remarkable trait for any 19-year-old navigating the nail-biting application process, but more so for Deng, who is from South Sudan.

As a boy, he fled his country without his parents. He ended up in the sprawling refugee camp of Kakuma, then made his way to school in Nairobi, Kenya.

But at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, Deng's story is far from unique.

The academy resembles an intimate university campus with hand-picked students from across the continent. The goal of the two-year bridging program is to get them into a top university.

And the ALA is remarkably successful, graduating students from 46 countries for nearly ten years.

"Shithole"? Perhaps not

In the wake of controversial comments attributed to US President Donald Trump about African nations -- he reportedly described them last week as "shithole countries" -- two well-known American non-profits donated to the academy.

It was a protest of sorts -- the College Board and ETS, which administer several US university entrance exams, clearly wanted to make a point.

"America's colleges are hungry for the strength and talent of Africa, Haitian and Central American students," wrote David Coleman, the president of the College Board, in an online post.

African governments and citizens have viewed Trump's comments as racist, although he has since denied he said them.

"Personally, I grew up in a community where we were taught dignity and respect for every individual and sanctity as human beings," said Deng.

Much of the anger isn't new. Africans have long despaired that the varied continent is viewed by some as a monolithic mess.

"Africa is much more than poverty and famine and just rural areas that are not developed. We are much more than underdevelopment," said Diana Spencer, a student from Senegal.

Spencer is heading to Notre Dame later this year on full scholarship to study international economics.

Taking or making?

The number of international students arriving in the US is dropping, and Trump's proposed immigration restrictions and travel bans could make it much harder for some students to attend US colleges.

The dean of the academy, Hatem Eltayeb, thinks it would be a great shame if fewer students and immigrants from Africa landed in the US. Eltayeb came to ALA by way of Sudan and Harvard.

"I think the more we build walls and the more we close doors, the more opportunities for magical opportunities and inspirational discoveries we miss out on," he said.

But the ALA can't keep up with the demand from bright applicants from scores of countries. They accept roughly five percent of their applicants.

Many prospective students aren't able to access a first-rate education because of finances, or because top schools just don't exist in their countries. It can be a bit daunting for those who make it.

"I think there is a responsibility attached to it, because we have been given the privilege of getting an education that some people might not have gotten. So, at times it is a bit scary," said Felix Morara, from Nakuru, Kenya.

If a student at ALA receives substantial financial backing, and many do, they are required to come back to their home countries to plough their experience and education back into their communities.

For most, it isn't a chore.

Morara said he would prefer to answer Trump's comments with action, not words.

"Comments such as these stem from the perception that a lot of Africans or immigrants come to take from the country, but I don't think that is what a lot of us are aiming to do. A lot of us, instead of getting something, hope that that country will make us into something," he says.

But first, Morara is off to Yale.

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