“I held myself responsible for making some sort of impact. It never felt like it was just me succeeding, it was more: I need to do this for my people.”
Selamawit, University of Pennsylvania

Selamawit Bekele

Hometown: San Jose, California

University of Pennsylvania

Senait Bekele was born in Ethiopia and raised by a single mother with her three older siblings. When she was 11, her mother moved the family to San Jose, California in search of a better life, which didn’t come easily. 

“We were on the verge of being homeless,” Senait says. “The whole American ideal of working hard and taking initiative stemmed from the fact that we had no other option.”

Even as the youngest, Senait felt responsible for her family. Senait’s mother couldn’t work because she didn’t speak English and was frequently in and out of doctor’s offices. “Never quite healthy enough,” Senait says. 

“We had to learn the social security system really fast, teach ourselves how taxes work, all that stuff you’re expected to just know—even bills, grocery shopping, hospital appointments,” she says, all of which was made that much more difficult because of her thick Ethiopian accent. “No one could quite understand me, and I felt like I couldn’t communicate with people,” she says. 

That eventually improved, in part when one of her 8th grade teachers assigned her certain books to help her learn more about American culture. Senait then asked that teacher to assign her a book a week, outside of standard homework assignments. It became clear early on that she was a curious, engaged student. Luckily, her teachers noticed and encouraged that in her. She often asked questions and did extra work because she truly wanted to learn. 

“In that sense I ended up getting ahead without even really meaning to,” Senait says. 

Despite becoming an excellent student, Senait never thought much about what was going to happen after high school. “School work kept me busy from thinking about some of the other stuff I had to deal with in life,” she says. “It was an outlet—when everything else was bad, I could put in effort and see an outcome, improve.”

One day as a sophomore, upon leaving her counselor’s office, she realized she’d forgotten her pencil and went back for it. As luck would have it, that was when she found out about QuestBridge. She applied for the College Prep Scholars Program for high school juniors, and says that the QuestCasts and other information provided through the program helped her to understand how financial aid really worked. “Private schools were not on my radar until then,” she says, whose older siblings attended community or state college. 

Though it seemed too good to be true, she applied to the National College Match. “My mom was still afraid a bill was going to come later on,” she says, “I was afraid the financial aid would stop and I’d have to drop out.” 

Ultimately, she decided to go for it because she didn’t want to wonder ‘what if’—but she still didn’t think it would work out for her. In fact, she didn’t even tell her family that she had applied, adding that even being selected as a Finalist was a shock to her. So when she matched with the University of Pennsylvania, she says it was one of the happiest days of her life. 

“I had compared myself to others and didn’t think I was good enough to make it. I had to think a lot about [my accomplishments]. You know, I didn’t, like invent things,” she says with a laugh." 

What drove her to get good grades was that she enjoyed it. Even academic success in AP classes was never a means to an end for her in terms of college or her future. “My ignorance, in a way, kept me shielded from competition I may have otherwise felt. I didn’t know how far it could take me.”

It was exactly this attitude that she conveyed to younger students: “You’re worthy of taking these classes. You don’t have to be a genius. If you do this, you will have opportunities.” 

She also exercised her leadership skills in other ways. An essay boot camp program given by one of her teachers had helped Senait immensely when applying to college, but upon learning it wasn’t open to all students, she persistently communicated the importance of the program to the school’s administration until the program was available to all.    

It’s that kind of dedication and passion that has helped her succeed in college, as well. For one thing, she and a friend have started a nonprofit called Kids of Dakar, a feeding center for homeless children in Senegal. It’s closely related to the kind of work she wants to do after college, where she’s majoring in health and societies with a concentration in global health. She says she wants to be a “social doctor”, and cites her background as part of the foundation.  

“Before I moved [to the U.S.], I lived in a small town with only one heath clinic. Family members consistently died from malaria; there was a lot of health care disparity,” she says. “I held myself responsible for making some sort of impact. It never felt like it was just me succeeding, it was more: I need to do this for my people.” Senait was able to go back to Ethiopia for an internship this past summer.  

College has made her realize that her success is a matter of her own initiative. “Some people may be 5 steps in front of you because of what they had. I have to work harder just to play on the same field,” she says. But she also says that it has opened her eyes. “So much is accessible to me just because I am at this school,” she says.  

What also helps is the connection she feels to other QuestBridge Scholars. “Quest is great about creating a community and support system. When you get to college you’re supposed to be an adult, but it’s not always easy.  They make you feel comfortable.”

QuestBridge, she adds, not only helps you get to college, but through it. She admits that at first, she didn’t feel like she belonged at college, much less an Ivy League school. But now? “Now I know I’m just as good as anybody else,” she says. 

Interviewed Fall 2015