Lily Zerihun, 23, of Greensboro, graduated from Duke University in 2016. Her parents emigrated to the United States from Ethiopia, and Zerihun was born soon after. She was raised with a keen understanding of how different her life was from the life she might have led if she had been born in her parents’ home country.
“Growing up I was always very aware of health-care issues in my own family, including people who had to come to the U.S. for treatment from Ethiopia,” she said. “Or people who, if they lived in the U.S., could have been treated, but had to go without.”
Zerihun, who turned 23 last month, embraced science at an early age. Her father, a chemist, would return from chemistry conferences with refrigerator magnets that had the periodic table printed on them.
By age 3, Zerihun had memorized the first 20 elements, recalled her father, Zerihun Assefa, the chairman of the chemistry department at N.C. A&T. By the time she turned 7, she could sit and read books for hours at a time.
Zerihun is already on her way to accomplishing that with her 11 medical school offers.
The application process is long and arduous, and each decision was heart-stopping. When Zerihun got her very first decision – from Wake Forest University – she even made a friend open the email for her.
As more and more decisions rolled in – from George Washington University, Yale, Duke, North Carolina, East Carolina, Northwestern, Mount Sinai, Emory, NYU and Columbia – Zerihun said it was a “surreal experience.”
She decided on Columbia.
Here’s a portion of what Lily Zerihun posted to Facebook after her graduation from Duke University last May with degrees in biology and global health. Zerihun’s parents both emigrated from Ethiopia to the United States. Her post has been edited for length and clarity.
“Seventy percent of Ethiopian women can’t read. So why me? I hold this diploma and I feel like there is a voiceless and powerless woman in the world who deserved it more than me. …
“My grandmother never knew she’d see a granddaughter graduate from college with a STEM degree. My grandma never went to school. Sixty-something years ago, she was forced into a child marriage in rural Ethiopia. She ran away from her husband and sent her son (my father) off to finish his education far away because her village had no adequate schools. The only life she expected for herself, and probably for future descendants like me, was to get married and die powerless. But she broke the barriers of poverty and paved the way for her children to succeed. … My grandma never imagined life could amount to this.
“Many people told me that people who look like me are incapable. The world tells me that Africans are the most inferior, or that black women don’t belong in science. To those people: we belong here, we are capable.
“My life is a culmination of many stories like these that brought me here today, thanking all the people who believed in my ability to succeed. It makes me realize what the power of an education, and the power of an opportunity, can do.”
Zerihun’s primary global health interests lie in prevention and treatment of cardiovascular illness. She works in a lab researching post-stroke neuroregeneration in order to develop more effective stroke treatment strategies. In addition, the summer after her sophomore year, she participated in the Student Research Training (SRT) program in Haiti, where she and her team performed a baseline assessment of cardiovascular health in a small community. They also researched the feasibility of implementing an HPV and cervical cancer prevention program.
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