To start off, tell me a little bit more about yourself, where did you go to high school, and what college are you currently attending?
I went to Albert Einstein high school in Maryland, and I am now a second-year student at Brown. I’m studying public health and I’m thinking about potentially double-concentrating in either business or Africana studies.
When you first got to Brown how did you get acclimated to campus life?
I think that the way to get acclimated is finding friends who share a common interest with you. This helped me discover different parts of my identity. I like running so being with my teammates was good, but in Maryland there’s a huge Ethiopian population so going to another state, going to Providence, and suddenly realizing, “Whoa, this is different,” led me to make friends who share the same background as me.
Talking with my advisor also helped me work through the feeling of being out of place and not belonging. You have to recognize that everyone feels that way at times. Those feelings are temporary and you eventually grow out of them.
Everybody will always tell you to “find your people”, but sometimes that’s hard to figure out. When you say you found new friends who shared common interests, how specifically did you do that?
I went to a lot of on-campus events. Even though sometimes the mere thought of showing up can lead to first-year nerves, just the fact that you’re going to these events and putting yourself out there can be helpful for both first-generation students—and for students in general. They're especially helpful for first-gen students because half the time you don’t know what resources are out there. The only way to learn about them is to get involved and attending campus events is a great way to do that.
Why did you choose Brown?
I chose Brown because I liked that while it is academically challenging, I also felt like there wasn’t too much academic pressure. I wanted to go out of state and push the boundaries a little bit. It’s a mid-sized school and I enjoy running for them, so it’s a good fit.
When you were just starting high school, how did you stay focused on your dream of attending a school like Brown?
This is kind of embarrassing, but when I was in eighth grade I made a promise to myself that in high school I was going to aspire to be a doctor or a lawyer and that I would get into a really good college. So, in the part of my imagination that I let dream and think outside the box, the idea was always there. I don’t want to say it “just happened”, but I applied not really knowing what my odds of getting in were.
Going into the first semester of school I sometimes felt like I didn’t belong—and I know almost every kid feels this way. I had these huge insecurities, but in terms of getting into Brown, I just had to take the shot and put myself out there—that was crucial.
While everything is more equal nowadays, barriers still exist. One thing that you can do is apply to all the programs that are out there, reach out to people, basically do whatever it takes.
You attended a minority majority high school which is contrasted by Brown. When you go back to school does it feel like home?
It does. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping up with things that make me happy like running, but also staying in touch with my culture. Being Ethiopian the food and dance is a big part of it; there’s a solid cultural base at Brown so I would say it feels like home.
You’re a D1 athlete at an Ivy League. How do you balance between work and school?
At Brown, no one really walks around thinking about how intense it is, maybe it’s just our school’s culture. But you definitely still have to stay on top of your work. There comes a point where you start comparing yourself to others, “What if I had done better on this test?” or “So and so is a first year and already got into medical school”. There are programs like that and you think, “Oh, why didn’t I do that?” But you have to remember that you’re on your own path and there’s a reason for that. Plan to stay motivated; everyone makes their own mistakes.
This is a bit of a tangent, but can you talk about that program?
Yeah, there’s a program called PLME that allows you to gain admittance into medical school when you gain admittance into Brown.
When things don’t turn out as planned, how do you keep your cool?
What keeps me grounded are the friendships I’ve made. When things get rough, we stick it out—together. These are people who share largely the same background as me. During the summer, we completed the same internship. I was at a place called Generation Teach, where we taught students who live in minority majority communities.
But going back to the question, these are the people who always get me back on my feet. Trusting in yourself is also a big part of it. I think when you come from a background where you don’t have an example, or someone in your family you can ask, or connections to reach out to, things could be going great, but you look for reasons that they should be going wrong. When you do succeed at something, you think, “Oh, that was just a fluke” or “I guess that test was just easy”. Everything has to be perfect because you feel like you can’t mess up. At the end of the day, I have to trust all the years that got me to this point and know that same experience will also get me out of any tough situation.
How did you hear about Generation Teach and what type of work were you doing there?
I heard of it through several places: an email my coach sent out, through my Africana studies professor, and through an internship page. I had seen it multiple times so I thought I should apply; it was a “put yourself out there” kind of thing. My program took place in Providence, was a month long, and prepared me to become an interactive teacher. You go through two weeks of training, which teaches you to not just talk at students, but actually engage them.
You are assigned a course to teach; I chose engineering. You also get to decide what you’re teaching and design the curriculum. Through that I learned a lot about myself and the teaching profession. It was a good way to explore if I wanted to try teaching. Internships are a great way to acquire skills you can only gain through active participation. I’m not thinking about pursuing teaching, but I really like interacting with people on the daily and completing this program made me learn that about myself, which was valuable.
Would you care to debunk the myths surrounding Brown’s grading system?
It is true that if you get below a “C” in a class it won’t show up on your official transcript. However, you still need to be in good academic standing which means passing a certain number of classes per semester. If that doesn’t happen you get put on warning, and then serious warning. There are also certain requirements, like you have to work on your writing at least twice—once during your first two years and once during your last two years.
What’s running like at the collegiate level?
The competition is way deeper. In terms of conflicting with academics, I would say it does sometimes. You can’t give one hundred percent to everything all the time. Sometimes you have to give your sport priority, sometimes you have to give priority to academics. Finals week? Okay, academics. Championship week? Okay, running. It’s a balance and I think that makes life richer—I think it’s more exciting the more you add. Running is a different setting, a stress reliever. Some students use music or whatever—doing anything outside academics gives you an outlet.
Any final advice for students in high school struggling to carve out a path and achieve their goals?
I’d say definitely keep the vision, it’s important to think about it long term, but also focus on the short term, maybe that means prioritizing getting your homework done instead of other things. Also, ask for advice from friends, teachers, and family. For example, I know that by definition being a first-generation student means neither of my parents attended college, but my mom has years and years of life experience on me and she can give me valuable advice.
Surround yourself with positive energy and with those who will push you to reach your goals. Also, realize that it doesn’t have to be Brown or nothing, it doesn’t have to be Harvard or nothing. Just because one thing doesn’t work out doesn’t mean something else won’t.
My senior year of high school I actually applied for a prestigious scholarship and I guess I need glasses because when the results came out I looked at them and thought, “I got in!” I told my mom and then she went around telling everybody—her sister, her auntie, everyone—and they all knew I had gotten the scholarship. The next day I refresh the page and I double check and it says, “Thank you for applying...” It was one of those “We’re sorry, but” letters. Things like that show you sometimes you have to cut your losses. When one door closes another one opens.
You did end up getting the Gates Millennium Scholarship. Can you speak to how that’s helped you?
The financial burden that going to college involves is something you have to think about. In addition to stressing about exams, you may also have to stress about how your parents are going to pay tuition or how to manage loans—it’s a very real fear. I was blessed enough to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship and not have to worry about paying out of pocket. It relieves some time and stress and lets me focus on my academics and running. Not to make it political, but in a time when there are government cuts to education, you have to keep that in mind and think about how it will affect you. Applying to scholarships, even “small” scholarships, will help you pay for college and will be really useful.
Immediate plans for the future?
I think I’ll spend this semester just applying to internships; this summer I hope to do something more closely tied to public health.
Rapid Fire Round
One book recommendation? The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I think it’s important to think about beauty, especially in the age of social media, and to question who decides what’s beautiful. I think the book does a great job of discussing race as well as class.
Favorite Quotation/poem? One of my favorite lines is from a Rudyard Kipling poem, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”
Name an Icon: I look up to Rihanna because she’s always poppin’. I admire her attitude and her style.
What’s a song that can get you through the day? “Good as Hell” by Lizzo.