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From Ethiopia to Corvallis: Graduating senior's vision for healthcare

By Hannah Ashton

Six years ago, Bereket Berhanu arrived in the United States knowing two words in English: ‘No’ and ‘Yes.’

This June, Berhanu will be graduating with a major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, along with two minors. Following graduation, he will start optometry school at a top-tier program in California.

Optometry wasn’t a random choice; it stems from deep family connections, the invisible force that has sustained him through hard times.

“When I was struggling with life, moving to college or difficult classes, the only thing that kept me pushing is how many sacrifices my dad and my mom made for me and my siblings,” he said.

Witnessing the healthcare struggles in Ethiopia, particularly his uncle’s preventable blindness due to diabetic retinopathy, solidified his commitment to optometry.

Berhanu plans to return to Ethiopia to open his own practice, but no matter how far he gets from Corvallis, he will always remember the faculty, staff and programs that helped him succeed.

His journey exemplifies resilience, the transformative power of education and the impact one kind-hearted individual can have on the world.

Moving to the U.S.

Bereket Berhanu and his three siblings grew up in the town of Dilla, Ethiopia, where access to modern healthcare is very limited and can be virtually nonexistent in rural areas. According to the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Ethiopia is not graduating enough specialist medical professionals to meet the rising demand of health services.

“In my country, finding healthcare is a nightmare. The government is working hard to provide government hospitals, but they completely neglect the eye care system. So my uncle was getting all the treatment for his diabetes, but they forgot about his eyes. When I was in 8th grade, he became blind and couldn’t work," he said.

Watching his uncle become disabled with virtually no resources available was a heart wrenching experience. After his dad, Amare Berhanu, and older sister received their diabetes diagnoses, Berhanu was terrified for their health and futures. Since they couldn’t find local care options, they had to go to the capital city frequently, a nearly seven-hour trip on a public bus.

“I began dreaming of becoming an optometrist, driven by the desire to serve and uplift my community. I am determined to make a difference in underserved areas, bridging gaps and advocating for meaningful change,“ Berhanu said.

When he was a sophomore in high school, his family was awarded visas through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.

“My dad decided to move to the United States for the future of me and my siblings. Back in Ethiopia, even though education is free and you can pursue any career, finding a job is much harder, and the civil war continues to create challenges," he said.

The cards were stacked against the family when they arrived in the U.S. No one in the family spoke English, and they were severely unprepared for the cost of living adjustment.

“Back in Ethiopia, my parents, Amare and Abay, had everything they could want. They owned a house, a hotel and were getting ready to retire,“ Berhanu said. “Here, it was difficult for them to find a job. Even when they did, they struggled to communicate with others and connect with their community.”

Compounding the stress, both his father and mother were diagnosed with severe chronic diseases. Although healthcare in the U.S. is better than Ethiopia, the cost adds up quickly, he said.

“I was going to give up on school. But I remember thinking, ‘Alright, I have to go school. I have to learn this English, I have to go to college and graduate and make my dad and mom proud,’” he said. “I am very excited for graduation.”

A man in an Oregon State University lab coat poses for a picture inside of a laboratory.

Bereket Berhnanu posing for a picture in the laboratory. He has worked with Associate Professor Phil McFadden since his freshman year.

Finding a community and purpose in Corvallis

Becoming acquainted with college life started before Berhanu even stepped foot in Corvallis.

During his senior year of high school, he applied to the Oregon State STEM Leaders Program. Focusing on serving diverse students including students of color and first-generation students, the program combines peer mentoring, undergraduate research, mentorship and workshops to increase student participation in STEM.

“The College of Science offers a wealth of resources for any situation, and I made sure to use each and every one of them."

Berhanu was paired with Phil McFadden, an association professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, who has become one of the biggest influences in his life.

“He has been there since my first year. He kept encouraging me, knowing my entire story. He would always say, 'Don’t worry about it, BK. You’ll be fine. You’ll get there,'” Berhanu said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted his first year at Oregon State, Berhanu and McFadden met on Zoom every Thursday.

“We would talk about biochemistry of various subjects. We would discuss Ethiopia and how to modernize its agricultural infrastructure. We even talked about different kinds of food in Ethiopia and how we could conduct research to improve them.” he said.

Thanks to McFadden, the Biochemistry Club, the African Student Association, Nia Black Scholar Living-Learning Community, LSAMP, and the Black Student Union, Berhanu found community and support on campus.

“As a first-generation student, I initially struggled to navigate the vast array of resources available. By my sophomore year, I was determined to support others facing similar challenges. This drive led me to become an Academic Learning Assistant for Poling Hall, dedicating myself to helping fellow students succeed,” He said. “I receive heartfelt texts from students expressing their profound gratitude for my help. In truth, I merely pointed them to available resources and scholarships. Yet, even this simple guidance made a significant impact on their lives.”

The position is a live-in, peer mentorship, student staff position. Berhanu has one-on-one meetings with students and works to cultivate strong academic habits and promote engagement with university resources.

“The College of Science offers a wealth of resources for any situation, and I made sure to use each and every one of them. This was key to my success in achieving my degree and reaching my goals,” he said.

A future full of hope

Berhanu knows graduation is going to be an emotional experience for him and his family.

"From the bottom of my heart, I just want to thank my family. They’ve done everything for me. They could have stayed in Ethiopia and lived their best life, but they chose the hardest path to ensure the best future for me. They sacrificed everything—their health, their money, and their well-being—so I could stand here today, ready to graduate and achieve my dreams,” He said.

Tears have already been shed after he received his acceptance to the University of California Berkeley Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science, where he received a four-year fellowship and a departmental award.

Although he would be the last to flaunt his achievements, Berhanu has accomplished the unimaginable and paved a path for others, including his own siblings.

His younger sister will be starting at Oregon State in the fall, pursuing a degree in biochemistry. His older sister is working towards her degree in nursing, and his younger brother wants to be an engineer.

“I think that's more than enough for me, knowing I've inspired at least my siblings," he said. "I couldn't ask for anything more.”