For an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, the Minneapolis Promise and a lot of hard work paved a path to college.
Addis Tesfaye loves people. Yet speaking to a rotunda full of City Hall dignitaries at the Minneapolis city inaugural last week brought out butterflies for the 18-year-old student.
But it was payback time -- time for the immigrant to explain how the opportunities offered her in Minneapolis have advanced her life. Tesfaye delivered that message in flawless, unaccented English.
That was all the more remarkable considering that the Amharic-speaker from Ethiopia was dropped into a Minneapolis classroom six years ago without knowing a bit of English. From there she's mastered a new tongue, added Spanish to boot, compiled a stellar academic record and gotten launched on to further studies at the University of Minnesota.
Tesfaye was on the program because Mayor R.T. Rybak wanted a young face involved in the ceremony that marked the swearing in of himself and 13 council members. In Tesfaye, he got a speaker who illustrates perfectly the Minneapolis Promise that Rybak has been promoting -- that a low-income teen who plans ahead and works hard can not only find summer internships but also a way to finance college.
To understand the importance of education in Tesfaye's life, you have to go back to her early years in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. She describes education there as a privilege that a lack of money can deny.
Tesfaye was forced to miss fourth grade when family finances tightened. She described movingly in her speech and a later interview how it felt to watch other children walk by on their way to school while she was forced to stay home. That experience helped kindle a passion for schooling when she was able to return to the classroom.
Descriptions of America she heard from others had made it seem a land of opportunity, and she described the day her mother told her they would be moving to Minnesota as one of the greatest moments of her life.
Although she arrived determined to face the challenge of learning English, Tesfaye described starting school at Anne Sullivan Communication Center in the Longfellow area as one of her hardest experiences.
"I felt as though I came from an entirely different world," she told the City Hall audience. When she switched from English Language Learner classes to a mainstream classroom, attending summer school as well, her progress accelerated.
"I knew I needed to be fluent fast," she said. She was a valedictorian by the time she graduated from eighth grade.
Shifting to nearby South High School, she found the College and Career Center established by Achieve!Mpls, a nonprofit supporting Minneapolis students. She attended resume workshops, researched job and scholarship opportunities and polished her essays for them under the tutelage of Anne Erickson, the center's coordinator.
"She went beyond her job to help students," Tesfaye said.
"I probably saw her at least once a day, every single day," Erickson said. "She was so motivated. She wanted to make sure she took advantage of every opportunity she had."
That included applying through a city program for summer internships also run by Achieve!Mpls. She landed first at Ameriprise Financial, a little intimidated and wondering what a teen could offer a financial giant. She left with new job skills and a hankering for personnel work.
That led to another internship last summer in human resources with the Minnesota Twins. "It was one of the most interesting experiences I ever had," she said, and it cemented her decision to major in human resources development.
She's just completed her first semester at the university, although she's well beyond that academically due to college credit earned at South. She's attending on scholarships including the school's Founders Free Tuition program for low-income students, another element of the Minneapolis Promise. She's also worked all through high school, including evenings after her daytime internships, as a hospital nutritional aide, the same work her mother does.
Tesfaye's journey is a feel-good story that previous generations of Hmong, Ukrainians, Scandinavians and countless other ethic groups can relate to. Highlighting the city's role in providing that opportunity is also smart politics for a mayor competing for the DFL endorsement for governor.
Tesfaye's full first name is Addisalem, which means "new world" in her native tongue. She's taken that new world by storm.No special treatment
Further evidence that City Council members also use the public services they vote on was supplied by two recent incidents.
First, Council President Barb Johnson mentioned at her inauguration that she'd wrenched her knee trying to cross one of those icy snowbanks left by plows after the Christmas snow/rain storm.
Second, rookie council member John Quincy was forced to downsize his plans for an informal post-swearing-in luncheon at his home when repairs to a broken water main forced a temporary shutoff of water to his Page neighborhood block.
Coincidentally, Quincy will sit on the Transportation and Public Works Committee, which deals with city utilities.Well, they tried ...
We mentioned in this space a few months ago how the City Council last year scheduled one of its off weeks -- a period with no meetings when some members vacation -- during the first week of school rather than the previous week, when families can still vacation.
This year's draft of a council schedule moved that week to the more family-friendly week before Labor Day. That worked until it was discovered that Rosh Hashanah, commonly called the Jewish New Year, falls in the week after Labor Day. For those keeping track, Jewish Year 5771 begins on Sept. 8. Since the council tries to accommodate religious preferences of its members, it decided to take the week of Rosh Hashanah off instead, which is also the first week of school.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438