It’s no secret how expensive a college education can be. If you’re a child of immigrant parents or you recently migrated to the U.S., paying for a higher education can be a burden or even impossible. Thankfully, with scholarships and financial aid there’s hope, and no one knows this better than Genet Lakew. The Ethiopian-bred, Howard University graduate managed to earn a debt-free degree in journalism at the prestigious HBCU, followed by a free Masters degree in Africana-Studies at New York University. Through the power of scholarships and fellowships, Lakew was able to fulfill her educational goals.
Now, with a career in digital communications at The National Urban League, the 27-year-old is ready to give future college students scholarship opportunities through her own initiative, The Mekonnen Family Scholarship. The endowment is designed to help immigrant high school students from the black diaspora pay for college. Like those who were born into an immigrant household, Lakew is no stranger to the limitations that come with trying to achieve a higher education.
“My working class Ethiopian immigrant mother emphasized education as a gateway to opportunity and success. But she did not have the economic and social access to help me apply to colleges, visit campuses, pay for application fees, tuition and housing,” Lakew wrote on her campaign page, Help Black Immigrants Pay For College. “The scholarship is named in honor of the humble, hardworking immigrant family I come from, who poured their hopes and dreams into me. I want the names and memories of the souls who are no longer on Earth to live on through this scholarship.”
Beneath the financial strain and lack of resources, there’s a deeper reason why Lakew is determined to help her fellow immigrants. When a discussion about immigration during this troubled political time surfaces, the black immigrant experience is shoved under the rug. Alongside the financial help, the young professional wants to bring visibility to the African and Caribbean communities, and their hardships in trying to pursue the American dream.
“For example, growing up in the D.C. area one field that is dominated by black immigrants is the taxi business. A lot of taxi drivers are Ethiopians or Nigerians,” she continued. “So when you have conversations with these taxi drivers you learn that a lot of them have professional careers at home; some of them might be doctors, engineers or professors. There are a lot of educated middle class black immigrants, but there are also a lot of working class immigrants. I want to give them wiggle room to have the quality of life that they desire.”
While there are many settlers of the black diaspora across the country, Lakew is beginning her initiative on a local level in her hometown of Arlington, Va., where she’ll recruit five candidates from her alma mater, Washington-Lee High School. VIBE spoke with the young entrepreneur about her latest endeavor.
VIBE: How did you find out about scholarships while in high school?
Genet Lakew: In high school, we had a great minority achievement coordinator named Mr. James Sample. Pretty much all of the minority kids at the school knew him, and we would always go to his office. His office was kind of like the hangout space. He was just very welcoming and supportive, so that’s why the minority kids gravitated towards him.
In my junior year he started sending me some applications for scholarships, whenever they would come in he would pass them along and encourage me to apply. By the time I graduated high school I was able to get a total of $8,000 in scholarships.One scholarship was for $4,000 and another one was for $2,000. The other two were for about $1,000 each, so by the time I entered my freshman year at Howard University I had $8,000 in scholarships with me, which was really helpful.
What was the application process like for these scholarships?
The process was really interesting. I remember my classmates not being as into them because they can be time consuming or just labor intensive, but I took in the challenge because I was motivated by the fact that I can get financial support.
Most of them—if not all—had an essay component. When it came to writing the essay, I figured out a way to tell my story.I remember some of the scholarships had interviews. It was a good practice run for job interviews and my career going through that application process.
What made you want to create your own scholarship?
I actually had this idea for a few years now. I’ve been out of college for six years this May. So I’m kind of going through these milestones; I’m in my late twenties, and I was reflecting on my educational journey. But it wasn’t something I really thought I could pursue. I just realized how lucky I am to not have that financial burden. So I kind of felt it was my responsibility to give back in any way that I can.
I decided to just jump in and do it right now. And I was like, “I’m going to do it, why not? I can mobilize people around this.” I think what really did it for me was the recent conversations that we’ve had in our country about immigration and refugees, and what we do with them as a nation. I felt this was a great time to offer something that shows support to immigrant students, and their families—to let them know not only do you belong in this country, but there is support out there for you to make sure that you have a good quality of life.
What is your plan for the $10,000 you’re raising for the scholarship?
My plan is to divide the $10,000 among five students who will each receive $2,000. They’ll be able to use it toward any college expense—not just tuition. I understand that’s really helpful for students, so upon entering their first year with whatever it is that’s going to support them during their college journey.
Who would be an ideal candidate for this scholarship?
An ideal candidate will be a young person who is very aware of where they come from, has a sense of pride and understanding of being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant family, while still trying to navigate American life. Young people who are navigating a bi-cultural environment and within this bi-cultural environment try to basically understand in the way they can where they come from, but also their own dreams and desires.
Do you aim to do the scholarship on a national level in the future?
Because this is the first year of the scholarship I want to kick it off by starting locally in the DMV, (Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia) and because I mentioned the minority coordinator at my school, James Sample, I’m working with him to set the scholarship up through there. For this first year it makes sense to search for applicants from Washington Lee High School. Now, this is something that I want to continue every year, so for next year I want it to expand, maybe make it regional for the East Coast, and then eventually expand to the national level. But of course, my vision is to impact as many students as possible.
Are you interested in opening up the scholarship to immigrants of all ethnicities and backgrounds?
I’m also open to that as well because I think that as immigrants we have a lot of similar experiences. Obviously we come from different parts of the world, but there are common things that we share once we get to this space of trying to navigate life in a new country.