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Commencement 2014
Drawing from his refugee past, Yafet Mamo looks to future in medicine

Yafet Mamo plans to attend medical school, where he'll pursue his interests in clinical practice and public health policy. Emory Photo/Video

As Emory senior Yafet Mamo watched the young refugee student working feverishly to unravel the mysteries of the English language, he realized it was almost like looking into a mirror.

"That boy could be me," he thought. "In fact, that boy was me…"

It's not surprising that Mamo was drawn to volunteering with Project SHINE (Students Helping in Naturalization and English), a service-learning program offered through Emory's Center for Community Partnerships (CFCP) that helps Emory students tutor refugees and immigrants trying to learn English and succeed in school.

Not long ago, Mamo was himself a young immigrant, newly arrived from Ethiopia and struggling to master English as a second language.

On Monday, he will receive a bachelor of science in chemistry from Emory College of Arts and Sciences, with post-graduate plans to attend medical school. Mamo is still weighing his options, having received acceptance letters from several top schools.

It's been a long journey for the son of a political refugee whose family immigrated to the Atlanta area when he was 13 years old. They fled Ethiopia after his father, who was then a government employee, wrote an editorial that enraged government officials and eventually put his life — and the lives of family members — at risk in their home country.

Now, as Mamo prepares to graduate from Emory, he searches for the words to describe his feelings about that journey and how very far he's come.

"One word that comes to mind is gratitude," he says.

Finding support at Emory

Although Mamo is about to embark on the next chapter in his academic life, he can't forget his experiences as an immigrant — a boy who spoke the universal language of "soccer" with other refugee children long before he mastered English.

In fact, he once assumed soccer was the only way he would ever get to college.

"My initial plan was kind of unrealistic and short-sighted — I thought I could get a full-ride soccer scholarship," Mamo recalls, laughing. "Eventually I realized I wasn't as good as I thought I was, which was a wake-up call."

It was during Mamo's senior year of high school that he stumbled across a reference that would prove life-changing: QuestBridge, a national college match program that links some of the nation's brightest, under-served youth with leading institutions of higher education.

"Basically, they match a limited number of students from around the country to select schools," he says. "Emory was one of those select schools, and they chose to sponsor me through a scholarship, which was, in effect, a full ride."

"That's the reason I'm here, the only way I could have afforded this kind of high-quality education," he adds.

The perfect chemistry

Mamo arrived at Emory eager to take full advantage of the liberal arts experience, enjoying exposure to many academic disciplines along the path to choosing a major.

"I started looking at economics, because of my interest in social studies and public policy," he says. "But because of my personality, I've always been able to connect with others, and that started me thinking about medicine."

Taking an organic chemistry class with Emory chemistry lecturer Matthew Weinschenk his sophomore year sealed his decision. "That class knocked me out and told me that chemistry was what I really wanted to pursue," Mamo recalls. "I knew I wanted to become a physician."

"I'm not just interested in providing care in a clinical setting, but I want to be involved in public policy, helping address structural issues to create a more equitable health and education system," he adds.

Weinschenk remembers Mamo as "a very quiet, humble, instrospective guy" who would sit at the back of the classroom — not the student who always waved his hand with the right answer, but the one always ready with the right answer if called upon.

In time, Weinschenk heard students talk about getting help from Mamo outside the classroom. "He was interested in the material and he was always engaged," says Weinschenk, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry.

And as a scholar, Mamo was a standout, among the top performing students in a class of 160, recalls Weinschenk, who eventually hired him to mentor other students not only for his mastery of the subject, but because "he enjoys helping others."

Working with refugees

That skill eventually drew Mamo to Emory's SHINE program, where he came to work with the Fugees Family program, which provides refugee children with the mentorship, structure and support to help them succeed in school.

"I had a number of other opportunities to do volunteer work, but what attracted me about Fugees was the personal experience I'd had as a refugee myself, so that relationship was pretty special to me," he says.

"I wanted to mingle with the students and be able to tell them, 'Hey, it's going to be okay. I've been there…'"

Mamo has been a SHINE volunteer for three years, both as a tutor and more recently, as a student staff coordinator. "When I think about Yafet, I use words like 'deliberate,' 'inspiring' and 'compassionate,'" says Caitlin Keesee, CFCP student engagement coordinator. "As a refugee himself, he has a special connection to the work."

At Emory, Mamo fully expected to find an education in the classroom. But looking back, he didn't realize there would be almost as much to learn outside of his classes.

In fact, along with working with SHINE, he counts his time as a resident advisor at Woodruff Residential Center among the highlights of his college experience.

"You grow in so many different ways," Mamo reflects.

"The biggest lesson was that not one person can do it all alone — you need to help each other out, dealing with programs, different events and coming together to make them successful," he says.

"You have to depend on each other. The friendship and the chemistry that builds from that, what I found here at Emory, I think that will stay with me for a long time."

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