UC Berkeley students long journey to graduation started in Ethiopia

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ByKate Larsen KGO logo
Wednesday, May 22, 2019
UC Berkeley students long journey to graduation started in Ethiopia
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With a little luck and a lot of hard work and persistence, one Bay Area student has made the leap from Ethiopian farmer to UC Berkeley graduate.

BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- On Wednesday, Lelisa Bera will graduate from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in psychology.

"Tomorrow is the day that I have been working for my entire life."

At 32, he's 10 years older than a lot of college graduates, but his journey to cap and gown has taken him much farther than most. The oldest of six, Lelisa grew up in a small village in Ethiopia.

"I walked-- every school day, which means three hours total. But, what makes it difficult was walking barefoot."

Lelisa parents are still farmers in Ethiopia, living a world away from their son's unexpected academic life.

"I tell her, 'hey Mom, it's UC Berkeley, one of the best universities in the world!' She goes like, 'okay son.' They are happy that I'm at university. I'm also graduating with a degree from America, that's a thing!"

Six years ago, Lelisa applied for a federal diversity visa. He won and flew to Los Angeles, his first time traveling outside of Ethiopia.

"You see all these cars, all these crowds in the city. Everything you see is completely different," Lelisa said about arriving in Los Angeles.

Lelisa found support in LA's Ethiopian community, enrolled in community college and applied to UC Berkeley, where he immediately felt at home.

"The weather condition in Berkeley is exactly the same as the weather where I grew up"

At UC Berkeley, Lelisa became a McNair Scholar, a national scholarship program.

"The requirements are students who are first generation, low income and members of underrepresented groups," explained Juan Francisco Esteva Martinez, the Director of the McNair Scholar program at UC Berkeley.

Esteva Martinez has known Lelisa for three years.

"He had that desire to move forward, to get better, to get educated."

Lelisa plans to visit his family in Ethiopia this summer and then return to the U.S. and apply to grad school.

"I'm very grateful to everyone, I say thank you. I'm so happy," said Lelisa, dressed and decorated in his cap, gown and many graduation sashes.