I was a typical child in Ethiopia. I was going to school, and took Islamic classes after school and on weekends. I grew up in a friendly, open neighborhood, and I played outside a lot. In the evening there used to be a lot of family time with storytelling. Sometimes neighbors would join us. It was a vibrant environment.
When we left, we had to go to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, then to Amsterdam. We didn’t get to Minneapolis until midnight. We didn’t really know what to do. Someone guided us to chairs and said, “Sit here,” and we sat there for hours.
We arrived in June. I thought it was going to be cold and snowy, but it was 100 degrees outside. I was thinking, “It can’t be. We would be cooking!” I had learned in science class that water boils at 100 degrees. A woman at the airport turned on the TV. “See?”
Her husband was sitting there laughing because he knew we were on two different systems: Celsius and Fahrenheit. The English system was the biggest culture shock to me.
From a very young age, my mom taught me that it was okay to be myself. It was okay to be curious, to have dreams, and to be a little weird. One day I got two rocks and a charcoal. I wanted to see how many small pieces I could break the charcoal into. My mom saw me sit outside in the sun, for what seemed like hours. She asked me what I was doing. When I told her what I was up to, she looked at me and said, “Let me know what you find out.”
This was my mom’s way of teaching me to embrace all aspects of my personality — including my relentless curiosity and weirdness.
When I was in high school, I had a teacher called Dr. Claire Hypolite. She has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, but she chose to teach at that high school because she felt it is where she could make a difference. One day she came to me and said, “I’m starting an after-school program called ‘Invention Club.’ You can come and invent whatever you want, and I will give you resources.”
I said I could not, because my parents didn’t drive. If I missed the school bus, it was difficult for me to get home. Dr. Hypolite arranged for me to get transportation.
It was my job to cook at home. I would rather read and do school-related stuff. I felt I was wasting a lot of time. I wanted to invent a machine in which I could put all the ingredients, press a button, and in five minutes it would give me the food I wanted to make. After looking into it a little bit, I realized I didn’t really have the skills to do that. But I read an article about women in remote areas who might not have access to devices to tell them they are infected with HIV. I told Dr. Hypolite, “I want to invent an HIV testing device.”
Dr. Hypolite introduced me to the field of microfluidics, where you can manipulate how fluids flow. She took me to labs and showed me how some people were doing research and using those devices. My idea was to make a device where your blood can flow through a series of channels, and as it flows through, things happen that can tell you whether you have HIV.
In the summer, Dr. Hypolite would sometimes meet me in downtown Minneapolis at Central Library. She taught me how to do research, how to read research papers, how to write research papers in MLA format.
She introduced me to the world of engineering and the medical device industry. I got my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Dr. Hypolite opened my eyes to the endless possibilities in this world, and to the many different ways that I could make a difference and contribute to humanity.
I work in the medical device industry as a product and process development engineer, which is an interface between research and development and the manufacturing of medical devices. I work with a lot of people, taking concepts and turning them into technologies that can help people. I help get devices approved by regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration. I take a design or concept and figure out how to make it. I sometimes test devices and write reports required by regulatory bodies.
The idea that I could become anything I wanted to was mind-boggling to me. The idea that there are scholarships specifically tailored to help people that might not be able to afford school was incredible.
I applied to about 12 scholarships, and I ended up getting about seven of them. Not only could I study everything that I wanted, but there were people who were willing to give me money that they have worked hard for so that I can have a better future and get an education. To me, that was really amazing.
Fadumo Yusuf also writes Somali poems and short stories, is publishing a novel called “Ayan, of the Lucky,” and blogs at fadumoyusuf.com
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