Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 19, 1997

Good As Gold

We miss them already. But even as we say goodbye to those students of the Class of '97 who we've come to know during the past four years, we can't help but get caught up in the excitement of commencement.

Thursday will mark the launching of 840 brand new beginnings. And The Gazette wants to take a last look at some of the undergraduates who have left their mark on Hopkins and its communities.

Dawit Habte has come to believe that there's some sort of magic to Thursdays, that if some decision or event comes crashing into his life, changing everything--well, it's a fairly safe bet that it will happen on a Thursday.

It was on a Thursday in September 1989, that Habte, then only 14, left his home in Eritrea, Africa, with his older sister and his sister-in-law. Together they walked for two months to Kenya so he could escape being drafted into the Ethiopian army during his country's vicious war for independence from Ethiopia.

It was another Thursday when he was freed from a Kenyan jail after months of being imprisoned for illegal entry into Kenya. After working as a bus conductor and teaching himself English by reading Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens novels with a translating dictionary, it was on a Thursday that, with the sponsorship of a Silver Spring church, Habte and his two sisters left Africa for America.

And this Thursday, Habte graduates from Hopkins.

"It is very strange, I cannot explain why, but Thursdays are my beautiful day," he says.

Now, looking back, Habte shakes his head a little in wonder that he got this far. Was that really him who juggled four jobs at once to pay for college and take care of his family? But more than wonder, Habte feels, justifiably, a little pride because during all that furious paddling to keep his head above water, he never lost sight of what is truly important.

When he was nine, Habte watched his younger sister die. The two were in a bus accident, and she was critically injured. Though they managed to get her to a hospital, once there, there were no doctors to treat her. He remembers that her eyes never left him as she died from her wounds. That day, Habte vowed he would become a doctor, and he would never again experience such impotence to help those he loves. He carried that vow all the way from Eritrea, to Kenya, to the United States and to Hopkins.

Habte was 16 years old when he went to live with his older brother, who already was living in Silver Spring, Md. with his older sister and his older brother's fiance. Unable to speak English smoothly, he was enrolled as a high school freshman and in what everyone called the "dummy classes." This infuriated him.

"I knew all the science and the math, but I didn't have the English to communicate this knowledge," he says. "So I was stuck in classes with students who didn't want to learn."

Being placed in these classes irked Habte most because it seemed like a terrific waste of time, and he was in a hurry to finish high school. He wanted to get his schooling out of the way so he could make money and pay for his teenage sister's passage to the United States. She had lost her hearing because of an untreated ear infection she developed at the age of three. Habte was certain that if he could get her here, an American doctor would be able to fix her hearing.

So he worked nights as an usher at a movie theater where he quickly managed to pick up the English he needed. Soon he amazed everyone by leaping through four years of high school in two. His second year, when he was taking four advanced placement courses, Habte was nominated to attend a physics seminar at Hopkins.

"It was spring on campus and the place was beautiful to me," he recalls. "But I took one look at the tuition and immediately wouldn't allow myself to even fantasize about going to school here. I had to be realistic. For me, Hopkins might as well have cost a million dollars. I was going to apply at a local community college and try to make it one class at a time."

But his high school college advisor had bigger plans for him and helped Habte apply for a scholarship, which would cover nearly all of the tuition to the university of his choice. The next fall, he was a freshman at Hopkins.

Medical school was still his goal even though computer programming was where he was truly gifted. But during his years as an undergraduate, he pushed into the distance the notion of graduate school as he tackled more immediate matters. He lived in a cheap apartment with his older sister Lemlem, now a student at the Baltimore Culinary Arts Institute, and worked four jobs at once to bring to Baltimore his younger sister Akberet. He then set his mind to paying for each one of his sister's three surgeries, which were not covered by insurance.

Akberet had her last operation this winter, and for the first time since she was a toddler, she can hear clearly.

"We are all so, so very happy," he says. "It is the best feeling in the world to have been able to do this. It was worth everything."

He still didn't quit his tutoring jobs, his graveyard shifts in the Homewood Academic Computer Lab, his work as a teaching assistant, and as administrative assistant in the Office of Multicultural Affairs because Habte still had one major purchase in mind: round-trip airline tickets from Eritrea to Baltimore for his parents. They are here now, ready to see their son receive his college diploma.

Seeing his father is especially emotional, says Habte, because since 1979, he has only seen him once, very briefly, when he went to Eritrea to retrieve Akberet. His father had been a leader in the Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front. In 1979, one of his comrades was captured by the Ethiopian forces and, to avoid torture, fingered Habte's father as an EPLF leader. His father managed to escape to Sudan where he worked as a truck driver and sent money to provide for the family. Two years ago, when Eritrea was officially declared independent, his father was finally reunited with his family.

When Habte graduates Thursday, his father will watch his son receive his diploma.

Somewhere along his journey, Habte learned he doesn't have to be a doctor to heal. And although he doesn't rule out medical school, he's beginning to think maybe it is not what he will end up doing. His real love is computer programming. At the end of this month he will move to New York City to take a job as a programmer at Bloomberg Business News.

The most important thing, he has learned, is taking care of family and to remember those who have cut him breaks along the way: the high school counselor who made Habte apply for the scholarship; the church, which paid for his first flight to America; Jack Dalton, the local internist and mentor who guided Habte through the foreign, complicated health care system; and his advisors here at Hopkins.

"I have been so lucky. I don't know why so many people have gone out of their way to help me," says Habte. "So much of the time I feel like I'm walking on giant's shoulders.

"I wouldn't change one part of my life. Because for better or worse, I've been in control of it. I made my own decisions along the way.

"And I think we, mankind, have to go through hardships, which test our fortitude, courage, spirit and integrity as gold is tested by fire."

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