Mekdes Hilete is a Class of 2020 Beat the Odds scholarship recipient. She was one of 18 students chosen from Portland-area schools to receive a college scholarship due to her exceptional accomplishments in the classroom and in her extracurriculars, even in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Below is an edited version of the essay Mekdes submitted with her application.
I was just four years old when I stood with my father at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as we said goodbye to my mother before she boarded a plane to the United States. At that moment, I had no idea what my life would be like without my mom by my side.
Starting in preschool, I was bullied. Not having a mother, or someone I trusted to talk to, made things even harder. In the community, I was known as “the girl with the absent mother.” That was my title, my label. I felt lonely, unsafe, and desperate to alleviate my worries.
As I got older, I started earning all A’s. I was engaged in class and I studied hard. Education gave me hope. It showed me that I was good at something. Soon, my label in the community changed to “the smart girl.”
At 14, I moved to the U.S. I entered 8th grade mid-year. Students were in the middle of projects and lessons, and I was expected to just fit right in with everyone else. But I wasn’t like everyone else. While my peers were writing essays, my teacher was explaining to me what “essay” meant. In Social Studies, when we were learning about the Louisiana Purchase, I had no idea what a Louisiana was or what a purchase meant.
I cried every day that first week of school. While battling homesickness, confusion, and sadness, I drew strength from my childhood experience of finding hope in education. I soon realized there was no easy way out of the challenges of living in a new culture – there was only a way through it. When that was clear to me, I got straight to work.
I communicated with my teachers about their expectations for projects. I asked for resources, taking home thick history textbooks, novels, and work packets. For months, I kept at it even though I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. When I got home, I jumped into writing, reading, doing math, studying for science tests, memorizing the 50 states, conducting science experiments, and understanding American history. I made Google my best friend, asking it to spit out all the information I needed. With every textbook I opened, a dictionary app was also opened on my phone.
Those small but hard steps led me to finish my 8th grade year with all A’s and a boost of confidence in my ability.
When high school approached, I was scared of the changes that may come with it. But I remembered that education is my goal. A few weeks into my freshman year, I made the mock trial team. Even though my English wasn’t perfect, I studied, Googled, and learned how to be a successful team member. Now I’m the captain.
Outside of school, I am part of a leadership cohort representing second language learners within Portland Public Schools. I also created a new club at my school called the International Culture Club, which creates a space for cultivation of multicultural and cross-cultural learning within our school.
Looking back at what education has given me, I am certain that my vision of attending college and medical school will be realized. I want to use the path education has paved for me to give back to people by becoming a family medicine doctor.