My friend Henok Mehari has had a remarkable journey. A 14-year old in Ethiopia, his family fled the Ethiopia/Eritrea war and he found himself living in a refugee camp in northern Kenya. In 2004, he and his family had the opportunity to come to Boston. As he put it in his graduation speech at the Notre Dame Education Center, “After the living in the hottest, dustiest refugee camp imaginable, I landed in the coldest town in the world.” NDEC specializes in adult education and literacy programs, and helped give Henok, a young man whose schooling was interrupted by war, the chance to complete his basic education.
Henok has been obsessed with technology for years. In an email he sent yesterday to a group of friends, he noted, “On June 6, 2001, I opened my first e-mail address and became so fascinated with the technology and so drawn by my first introduction that I sometimes sold my UN food rations in the camp to pay for access to the computer, to the Internet, and to email.” This fascination led Henok to apply for an internship with Year Up, a remarkable institution which works with urban youth, training them in technical, business and social skills that allow them to work as interns in a variety of business environments. John Palfrey, the director of the Berkman Center, has been a huge supporter of the program, inviting several interns to work at the center in the past four years I’ve been here.
People in the fellows program at the Berkman Center generally haven’t interacted very closely with Year Up interns. Henok has been an exception, primarily because he’s reached out to several of the fellows, sending us provocative questions, requests for advice on what to read and what to study. As a result, he’s gotten advice on writing from David Weinberger, about the history of the American legal system from Lewis Hyde, about copyright law from John Palfrey. In other words, he’s gotten the sort of education most of us only dream about.
There’s at least two ways to read Henok’s story so far. One is that of a young man who’s been incredibly unlucky and then incredibly lucky. Another is that Henok has done a remarkable job of seizing whatever opportunities have presented themselves, and created other opportunities by asking good questions and engaging with people around him. I watch Henok’s path and kick myself for the people I admire who I’ve not spoken to, the advice I haven’t sought, the questions I haven’t asked. And I resolve to get better about asking questions of the people I admire, and answering those questions that people ask me.
Today is Henok’s last day as an intern at the Berkman Center. In a few weeks, he begins the Transitional Year Program at Brandeis University, a year-long program designed for students who “have talents and native skills that exceed the resources available in their home communities to cultivate them.” For a year, Henok will have chance to take classes that will help prepare him for a university career, perhaps at Brandeis. I predict that we’ll see Henok back at Harvard, perhaps as an undergrad, perhaps as a graduate student.
Congratulations, Henok, and thanks for everyone – Notre Dame Education Center, YearUp, Brandeis, Berkman – who offer opportunities for people to seize.