Dream of becoming a teacher about to come true for Ethiopian immigrant

Almaz Aschalew, who emigrated from Ethiopia at the age of nine, is on the verge of realizing her dream of becoming a teacher, thanks in part to a scholarship she received while at Gordon Bell High School six years ago.

Gordon Bell scholarship helped Almaz Aschalew follow the path her mother wasn't able to pursue

Despite the hardships she faced after leaving Ethiopia, former Gordon Bell grad Almaz Aschalew is poised to realize her dream of becoming a teacher. (Elisha Dacey/CBC)

Almaz Aschalew has always wanted to be a teacher.

As a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg faculty of education, she's well on her way to reaching that goal.

But it wasn't always an easy road.

Back in 2012, Aschalew was the recipient of the Arlington Street Foundation Scholarship — a full-ride university scholarship awarded to a student from Gordon Bell High School.

The scholarship is meant to celebrate and support students who have faced and overcome a personal hardship — something Aschalew is well acquainted with.

"When I came [to Canada], I didn't think about other things that I might experience, that is the culture shock and learning a new culture and also the language," she says. "I didn't know it was going to be as hard as it was."

When she was nine years old, Aschalew immigrated to Canada from Yirgalem, Ethiopia. She travelled alone with her sister, leaving behind her grandparents who raised her. Their father had come years before them. She says he wanted to make sure his daughters would have a chance at a better life and most importantly, a good education.

Because he had left Ethiopia before they got a chance to know him very well, the two girls didn't end up staying with their father for long. By junior high, they were living on their own in a city that was still unfamiliar.

"My sister is older," says Aschalew. "She's the one who had to have a job so that I could focus on school."

Struggling to learn the language and keep up in school, all while living independently, one thing kept Aschalew going.

For as long as she can remember, she's wanted to be a teacher — a dream she was not willing to compromise, despite barely speaking the language of the country in which she wanted to teach.  

She just loved people and helping the people that are living in unfortunate conditions ...- Almaz Aschalew explains how her mother inspired her

She was originally inspired by her mother, who also wanted to be a teacher, but never got the chance.

When Aschalew was just two years old, her mother died from ovarian cancer — but not before leaving her mark on their community.

"I didn't know much about my mom, because unfortunately, I was two when she passed away. So just from what I hear about her and how she played a very important role in our community … she was a very driven person," says Aschalew. "She just loved people and helping the people that are living in unfortunate conditions, so I always wanted to follow her footsteps and hopefully achieve her goals that she unfortunately was not able to do so."

Aschalew got to know her mother through stories. Growing up she was fascinated by the tales of the woman she was named after. In the last years of her life, Almaz Bezabih built two structures in the community of Areka, Wolayata in Ethiopia. One was to be a home for her family. The other was to become a school and a home for orphaned children. Bezabih saved up her own money for the buildings and completed much of the work herself.

But the school never came to be. Aschalew says the building is still there but it's not a school. Her mother died before she could finish the project.

While that story stuck with Aschalew, it was only part of the equation for getting her where she wanted to be.

She had the motivation. Next, she needed the support. That's where the scholarship came in.

'Not a wealthy student body'

Arlene Skull, the outgoing principal for Gordon Bell, says the scholarship has given students like Aschalew a chance they wouldn't have otherwise had.

"We're not a wealthy student body," says Skull. "Lots of immigrants and refugees; lots of students who can't pay for university on their own."

The scholarship was started by a past graduate of the school, Frank Lonardelli. Skull was still the principal back when he decided to start the program. That was 10 years ago.

"Mr. Lonardelli himself went through a very hard time when he was growing up and he had to sacrifice his immediate goal, and then he had become a very successful businessman. And he wanted to give back," says Skull. "And so he set the criteria, that a student would to do well in school, participate in sports and demonstrate that they can overcome and withstand challenges."

That was, without a doubt, a perfect description of Aschalew.

Now that she's finished with her own schooling, she's ready to start giving back. In addition to beginning her work as a substitute teacher, Aschalew will become a mentor to the next recipient of the Arlington Street Foundation Scholarship.

Two recipients chosen

In honour of the 10th anniversary of the scholarship, Lonardelli decided to surprise the graduating class by selecting two recipients, rather than the usual one. 

The second scholarship was presented in honour of retiring principal Arlene Skull.

On Tuesday morning at the Gordon Bell graduation ceremony, Annie Johnston and Adam Mohamed were announced as the 2018 winners of the Arlington Street Foundation Scholarship.