Hamersen Bekele, JROTC instructor come from same Ethiopian village
Hamersen Bekele came to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a middle schooler in the spring of 2019.
He didn’t yet speak English, nor was he acquainted with American culture. The following year at W.T. White High School, he joined Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) because the instructor, Major Nebyou Yonas, was from the same Ethiopian village.
“I was convinced to be with him because he spoke my language, and I didn’t have any friends or anyone to speak with in my language, so it was nice to have someone that spoke my language, so I joined his class,” Bekele said.
Bekele graduated from W.T. White four years later and will attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a biology/pre-med major in the fall.
He began the West Point process his junior year by applying for its Summer Leaders Experience. Upon acceptance, he attended the weeklong immersion into a cadet’s academic, military, and social life, then began the application process for college admission shortly after.
Seeing where Yonas is today convinced Bekele that he can achieve.
“It’s very uncommon that this kind of similarity can happen,” Bekele said. “When he got here, he struggled to adjust to the culture, just like me. That connection really brought us together. I learned a lot from him.”
Bekele climbed the ranks in JROTC, achieving by his senior year battalion executive officer — the second highest rank in the program. He described the program as “transformational,” as he was a kid who couldn’t keep eye contact while speaking before joining.
“I didn’t really have much confidence, and so (JROTC) really brought the best (out) of me,” Bekele said. “It gave me confidence. There’s more discipline in the class, so I learned how to be disciplined, and most of all, I learned how to be a leader.”
Yonas said Bekele captured his imagination as a teacher.
“He’s always been extremely focused,” Yonas said. “I saw that, and I said, ‘Hey, you (have) a good potential to do big things, so make sure you stay on top of your grades and do well.’ And we haven’t left each other’s side since.”
Bekele plans to attend medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon. He said Ethiopia has good doctors and surgeons but lacks the materials and technology to support the work, so he wants to invest in advancing care there.
One thing he’s learned along the way: “If you have that good mentality and if you have a real motivation that keeps you going, I think it’s beneficial and worth it to risk it.”