Betsaida Abraham moved to California from her native Ethiopia at age 12. She didn’t know any English and had never attended school. Back then, her dream of being a doctor seemed unattainable.
Ten years later, the young woman who now goes by Betty is a senior at San Francisco State University, taking classes for her microbiology major and studying for the medical school admissions test.
For her triumph against the odds, Abraham learned this month that she had won the William Randolph Hearst Award, a $3,000 scholarship bestowed by the California State University trustees. She was one of 23 winners across the 400,000-student system.
“I’ve gone through so much,” Abraham said. “I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride and going where I want to go, whereas before I was just keeping my head above water.”
Abraham’s father fled political persecution in Ethiopia when Betty was a baby, leaving his wife and two daughters behind. They planned to follow him, but applying for asylum took longer than they expected.
“It actually took 12 years and a letter from [Sen.] Barbara Boxer to get us here,” Abraham said.
As they waited, Abraham’s mother kept the girls at home, fearing that their Protestant religion would endanger them in a country dominated by the Orthodox Church.
The girls taught themselves to read by studying the Bible, and they gained a love of science examining insects in the backyard.
When they were finally permitted to join her father in Sacramento, Abraham’s first impression was of enormity — wider roads, taller buildings and more food than she was used to seeing on a plate.
“I definitely felt out of place,” Abraham said. “But I was so excited, going to school for the first time.”
Abraham took English as a second language for two years, before applying to an honors high school. She persevered through difficult courses, then applied to SFSU. Believing medical school was out of reach, Abraham planned to study nursing. But she did so well in her classes that she reconsidered her old dream.
Abraham said she would like to return to Ethiopia one day — after becoming a doctor.
“I want to give back,” she said, “but I have to become somebody first.”