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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

We'll stay on the soccer field now but at a much lower altitude. Nineteen-year-old Barnaba Madol plays at an elite prep school in New Hampshire. He arrived in this country from Sudan five years ago with just a fourth grade education and speaking no English. Barnaba has spent the past year trying to get into college on a soccer scholarship. His skills on the field, though, may not be enough.

New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports.

DAN GORENSTEIN: When Barnaba began at the New Hampton School, his grades were mediocre, his test scores worse. But still, he didn't feel pressure to succeed in the classroom.

Mr. BARNABA MADOL (Soccer Player): I'm supposed to be more concerned about academic, but that didn't cross my mind at all. I was more concerned about soccer. Like was I going to start? Was I going to play?

GORENSTEIN: Barnaba knew his one-year soccer scholarship to this school in the quiet foothills of the White Mountains was his best shot at college. But that was going to be difficult. English teacher Harrison Golden.

Mr. HARRISON GOLDEN (English Teacher, New Hampton School): The first paper was - he did the assignment but it was so poorly done I wouldn't put a grade on it.

Mr. MADOL: When I was in English, people would just - good, you know. They could write, they know what they want to write and they know what's going on. Like I was kind of lost sometimes when the teacher talked in class.

GORENSTEIN: Barnaba's difficulties with English are understandable. At age 12, he and his family fled Sudan after his father was forced into hiding for his political activities. He spent two years in an Egyptian refugee camp and arrived in New Hampshire at 15 speaking only Dinka and Arabic.

Even after four years of public high school and well into a fifth year of private high school, Barnaba sometimes found his classroom experience humiliating. He thinks back on a debate where he had to prove Germany was responsible for World War I.

Mr. BARNABA: The guy was speaking about Germany - it was over the top and he was beating me on the words. I didn't know what to say. I'm just like stunned, you know. And the teacher looks at me, and she goes, I know you can do better. I said, no, I can't, and it's when like it just hit me, and I'm like, if I knew how to speak like them...

GORENSTEIN: As unsteady as his academic life was, his footing on the soccer field was as graceful as ever. He led the team to its first playoff tournament in years. He made the all-star team. Coach Manny Brito says his star player attracted soccer coaches from across the Northeast.

Mr. MANNY BRITO (Soccer Coach, New Hampton School): Williams College wanted him. Ohio Wesleyan, Hobart University. You name it, a bunch of schools. The problem was his grades from before.

(Soundbite of shuffling paper)

GORENSTEIN: Barnaba sits on his dorm bed and is flipping through a binder of his vocabulary words. His various No. 4 game jerseys frame his half of the room.

Mr. BARNABA: Here we go. This is all vocabulary words, it's the vocab section. Enormous...

GORENSTEIN: That's enormous.

Mr. BARNABA: What's that chateau word?

GORENSTEIN: Chateau is French. Chateau is like a house.

Mr. BARNABA: Wow, you know a lot, huh?

GORENSTEIN: Barnaba has spent a year grasping for definitions like these and choking out complete sentences. The hard work helped him pull his GPA up from a solid C in his senior year to a low B at New Hampton. And most importantly, he got into college.

This fall he's off to American International College in Massachusetts on a four-year soccer scholarship. But still, he struggles.

Mr. BARNABA: What's killing me right now is the vocab. I just can't get it, you know. I just can't learn different words. It's just too hard for me just to get a different word. Just that there's a lot that are - I don't know, it's worrying me a lot.

GORENSTEIN: Barnaba has taken the SATs four or five times now. He's waiting for his most recent results. If he doesn't make a modest score, he won't qualify to play collegiate soccer his freshman year. The thought of that makes him anxious.

At New Hampton, Barnaba came to know very wealthy kids with almost unlimited options, but he says he's not jealous of that. Barnaba says what he envies are their words.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

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