Class of 2015
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Abel Belay believes his life has a specific purpose: to improve the lot of those suffering through poverty by means of education. The epiphany came early. When Abel was 13 years old, his mother, who worked day and night for very little money in order to put him through primary school, fell ill with tuberculosis and was no longer able to support the family. Instead, Abel had to find a job in order to contribute to the family.
At first he tried working as a shoeshine boy, but the hours made it impossible for him to complete his school work. Next Abel tutored struggling students in his village. However, because he was only in grade school, parents were reluctant to pay him more than 100 birr a week (about seven US dollars).
"I was frustrated because I knew that university graduates could make a good living tutoring. At that moment, I realized that the way to escape poverty was education," Abel says. From then on, he vowed to put his own education at the forefront of his efforts.
That year, Abel's grade average was 99.6 percent, which placed him first in his class. In the eighth grade, Abel qualified for an interview with the Ethiopian Education Foundation that would potentially enable him to enter the prestigious School of Tomorrow in Addis Ababa.
Just a few days before the interview, Abel was told he had been dropped from the application process. Undeterred, he waited for five hours outside the interview room, catching the London-based EEF trustees just as they were heading back to their hotel. Armed with his top-ranking report card, Abel convinced them to conduct just one more interview and was ultimately awarded the scholarship. "This was a turning point in my life," Abel says.
Abel earned a perfect score on the grade 10 national examination. "I learned how hard work is crucial to achieving one's goals," he says.
He then represented his school at the Model UN in Addis Ababa and served on a committee dedicated to improving student attitudes toward HIV/AIDS.
When a beloved ethics teacher was unjustly dismissed for voicing his opinions, Abel joined a group of students who participated in demonstrations jointly with the teachers' committee. "In Ethiopia we have a proverb: 'Unity is strength,'" Abel says. A discussion developed with the administration, and the teacher was restored to his position.
As he put into practice his aspiration to fight poverty with education, Abel raised funds in conjunction with his school's charity club to assist economically disadvantaged students. "I know what it feels like to learn without proper food and clothing," he says. "I also know that one day these children we're assisting will become productive citizens, helping their country to be a better place for others like them." He continued to combat the lack of education by volunteering at a nongovernmental organization, serving as a tutor and a mentor to young students.
He also believes that there is a political dimension to poverty and wants to combat systemic reasons for why education remains out of reach for many. "I want to put pressures to formulate policies that help reduce existing poverty."
Planning to study engineering, Abel says "For me, the UAE is a great example of how environmentally friendly engineering can help protect our environment." He also cites the fact that the remarkable growth of the region serves as an example to his own country, Ethiopia. Abel aspires to "strengthen the relationship between my country and the Middle East," hoping to generate economic development in order to benefit those who struggle with poverty.