Now a sophomore at Boston College in Massachusetts, Gakdeng was born in the United States after her parents in 1999 fled civil war in then-southern Sudan. The country would later split into Sudan and South Sudan.
Although she has never visited her parents’ homeland, Gakdeng says she feels a strong connection to it and carries that with her every time she steps onto the court.
"I take a lot of pride in being the daughter of people from South Sudan. They have taught me a lot about where I'm from. Even though I haven't been back in South Sudan, they teach me a lot about the importance of where I'm from and family and how to stay connected," she said.
As a freshman last year, Gakdeng broke several records including in blocks and started in 32 of 33 games — the most by a Boston College freshman since 2007.
The 6'4" then-18-year-old led the Eagles in blocks (73), rebounding (6.3) with her field goal percentage at 58.3% — the first in the nation among all freshmen and 15th overall in blocks. She also broke the single-season program record for blocks and was named ACC Freshman of the Week five times.
Even though she played basketball at the national level in high school, her mother, Matilda Rial, says her pride reached its peak when her daughter was accepted into Boston College last year.
"To be accepted to have her education in a prestigious college like Boston College was a dream come true," Rial said. "So, I am very proud as an immigrant to have that opportunity for her."
Gakdeng's coach Joana Mcnamee says it’s not just her athletic prowess that makes Gakdeng stand out.
"Beyond the records, what makes Maria special is her mentality when it comes to hard work," Mcnamee said, adding that humility is another trait Maria possesses.
"Even when she came in and started as a freshman for us in the ACC and broke the freshman block record ... she accepted all the awards with so much grace and humbleness."
Gakdeng told VOA her recipe for success on the court is simple: hard work.
"I think it's been a long time coming, and I've worked for so long I just think it’s the product of what I've been working on for the past couple of years, even throughout high school, to make sure I was always in the gym and working," Gakdeng said.
Although her daughter was born in the United States, Rial said she raised Gakdeng and her older brother with South Sudanese culture.
"A lot of her journey is driven by the South Sudanese culture. My parents were big supporters of education, and since they were little, my children, they eat Mulah Kombo, they go to Sudanese functions, Sudanese community. It has been a big part of our life," Rial told South Sudan in Focus.
Rial says she is grateful to call the United States her second home because of the opportunity it has given her daughter.
"I want her to have the future that I didn't have, to have the opportunities that I didn't have, and I always tell Maria that there's nothing that is impossible for her to reach," she said.
Gakdenge has her sights set on the WNBA.
"Some of the goals that I have in mind is playing in the WNBA, so I’m just working towards that," Gakdeng said, adding that she also plans to take on a role in a top profession.
Her coach believes Gakdeng has a bright future both on and off the court.
"I believe she should be a player who can play professionally, basketball. I hope she has the opportunity to play here in the United States, in the WNBA and then also play overseas," said the coach adding, "I can see Maria being a boss and CEO one day."