By Haley Childers and Linda Coutant
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Maheder Yohannes is a first-generation college student majoring in accounting at Appalachian State University.
Having immigrated to America at age 10 under dire political and familial circumstances, the senior has excelled academically and as a student leader, especially as a 2017 Holland Fellow in the Walker College of Business (WCOB).
She received her U.S. citizenship in February. Bolstered by her newly earned American status, Yohannes will return to Ethiopia in December to visit extended family — and also give back some of the educational benefits she has received.
“My background continues to shape who I am,” said Yohannes, whose immediate family lives in Charlotte.
Her father came to the U.S. in 2003 on a United Nations political refugee visa, and it would be three years before he had enough money for Yohannes, her mother, sister and half brother to join him.
“I appreciate learning, growing and expanding my knowledge. In the words of the late Nelson Mandela, ‘Education is the most important weapon which you can use to change the world.’ My education is my important investment, and I work hard every day in order to ensure that my parents’ sacrifices are not in vain,” she said.
Yohannes said she’s grateful for the scholarship funds that have made college possible, especially the prestigious Holland Fellows program in which she and 11 other WCOB students worked on a project with 12 Chinese students and made a presentation together in Shanghai last spring.
In a speech to scholarship donors last March, Yohannes acknowledged the “rhetoric surrounding irrational fear of outsiders” coming into the United States.
“What makes this nation beautiful is the cultural exchange that has taken place and continues to take place,” she said, citing Holland Fellows as an example.
“I am a refugee from the Horn of Africa, living in the town of Boone, North Carolina, working with 12 students from China. We are all interconnected; we are all so different. Yet, by going through this program, we have seen how alike we really are,” she told donors.
Yohannes wants to give back to Ethiopia some of what she’s gained.
In her research, she said she learned that one out of three children of primary school age in Ethiopia is not in school — with that number increasing as the children age and are required to work and help provide for their families.
“Children as young as 7 shine shoes and sell chewing gum, sweets, lottery tickets and other small items on the streets so they can make ends meet for themselves and their families,” Yohannes said.
She created a YouCaring crowdsourcing page so she can help provide school supplies and required uniforms for underprivileged children in Addis Ababa when she visits in December.
“As fortunate as I have been, I can’t imagine returning to that land empty-handed,” she said.
She plans to stay in Ethiopia about a month before her accounting internship begins in Charlotte with PricewaterhouseCoopers in early 2018. She has already completed two internships with Ally Financial in Charlotte, which she secured through contacts made during the Walker College’s Business Connections event.
Yohannes said she knew early on she wanted to pursue an accounting degree. “Math is the same in any language, so I excelled in math” growing up, she said.
Choosing Appalachian “made sense,” she said, “because it’s a good value school and has a good accounting program. I wanted to come here.”
While at Appalachian, she holds leadership positions in Walker Fellows, Minority Women’s Leadership Circle and L.E.A.D. (Linking Education and Diversity) programs in which she mentors other students. She is also a Dean’s Club and Anne Cannon Trust International Travel Scholar and received the James F. Jones Accounting Endowed Scholarship.
Yohannes, who has a sister at UNC Greensboro, said she will likely remain in Charlotte after graduation in May 2018 since the city has a strong Ethiopian community.
While adjusting to American culture hasn’t always been easy, Yohannes seems to persevere.
“Everywhere you go there will be challenges,” she said. “It’s important to make the place where you are better every day and make it more accessible and open to everyone.”
“What makes this nation beautiful is the cultural exchange … We are all interconnected; we are all so different. Yet, by going through this [Holland Fellows] program, we have seen how alike we really are.”
— senior Maheder Yohannes, a new U.S. citizen originally from Ethiopia
Yohannes has created a YouCaring crowdsourcing page to help provide school supplies and required uniforms for children in the city of Addis Ababa.