When Barite Gutama got up to give the valedictory speech at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School recently, she made a point of mentioning several mentors and programs that helped her become the school’s top student.
What was so remarkable that Mayor R.T. Rybak took to Twitter to congratulate Gutama, however, was that just two years before graduation, Gutama immigrated from Ethiopia and spoke little English.
In those two short years, Gutama has assembled a stunning record of both academic achievement and service to the community, which she says is a way of giving back to her new country.
Yet, when I contacted Gutama to write a story about her, she hesitated, and only agreed to an interview if I promised to let her praise a long list of people she credits with her success, and her school.
“Please, can you not ask me personal questions, because there are so many people who helped me, and I would not be here if I did not get so much help,” she said.
In her speech, Gutama compared her journey to that of an ant she had recently observed. The ant started to dig a hole. Soon, hundreds of ants arrived, and helped dig the hole.
“When I came to the U.S. two years ago, I was thirsty for education,” Gutama said in her speech. “However, seeking that education was not easy for me in a new country. My first three months at RHS were difficult. My ambition was to attend college and pursue medical school, but I didn’t know how and where to start. Just like that little ant, I was lost. But I was not alone.”
Her fellow students at Roosevelt accepted her immediately, she said. “They never bullied me because of my accent,” Gutama said. “They just wanted to know me as a new student, rather than make fun of me.”
In her two years at Roosevelt, Gutama had grade-point averages of 3.9 and 4.0 while learning English and taking advanced courses in topics such as chemistry.
Gutama joined a program called STEP-UP Achieve, which teaches job-search skills and places students in paid internships based on their career goals. She got an internship at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, where she helped in the pacemaker clinic and shadowed nurses and doctors.
“I’ve been wanting to be a doctor since childhood,” said Gutama. “That really made me eager to work in the field.”
Amy Shapiro, senior program associate with STEP-UP, calls Gutama “remarkable.”
“I’m so impressed by her perseverance and enthusiasm and passion,” said Shapiro. “She’s such a role model for her peers.”
As a founder and volunteer for Key Club/Students in Action at RHS, Gutama helped out at food shelters and won the Jefferson Award of Public Service, one of many volunteer activities in which she has participated. She has tutored students, many of them African-American like herself, at the Franklin Library and Keewaydin Middle School. She has also talked to students about drug abuse.
Later this month, Gutama will be honored for her community service with the Comcast Foundation’s Leaders and Achievers Scholarship Program.
When I asked Gutama how she could accomplish so much and still do teenage things, such as playing video games, she offered a shy smile.
“I don’t play video games,” she said. She does, however, read autobiographies in her spare time.
Ben Chiri, a science teacher and adviser with the Key Club, said Gutama “came right in and knocked Roosevelt’s socks off.”
Chiri said he was struck by her maturity and diligence. “She took charge of the Key Club and really dove in,” he said. “She was very determined to create a lasting program at Roosevelt, not just pad her résumé. I think she wanted to leave a legacy, and she has.”
Gutama is heading off to St. Olaf in Northfield for college, and hopes to go to medical school.
“I have no doubt she will be a doctor some day,” said Chiri.
“I am a determined person,” said Gutama. “But the public schools here are so good. The teachers always took the time to help me when I needed it. The U.S. was always a dream land to me [in Ethiopia], but now I feel like my dream came true.”