Success Story: Bitseat Getaneh
Bitseat Getaneh had every reason to be dissuaded from pursuing her lofty dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. It was August 2016, her first day in the United States, and the then 16-year-old girl from Ethiopia was beginning a temporary stay in Maryland with her host couple. The plan was that she would soon leave Maryland and move to Oklahoma to attend boarding school.
But things didn’t go as planned. In the complex where she was staying, a natural gas explosion occurred, killing her host couple, trapping her in the apartment. “As the flames expanded, I rushed to the exit door through the collapsing apartment, trying to save my life,” says Getaneh. “I ran from one corner to the other. I felt the flames burning my face, but I still couldn’t find the door. I started praying out loud, ‘Please, God, save me!’ After a few seconds, I found myself outside the apartment. I still don’t remember how I got there, and I did not yet know that both my hosts did not escape but passed away in the apartment that night.”
Her body was covered with third-degree burns. She was hospitalized and unable to attend high school for four months. She never made it to Oklahoma. Her mother left her husband and three other children to come to the United States to help nurse Bitseat back to health. Most of her family remains in Ethiopia.
Move forward almost two years after the tragedy. In June of this year, Bitseat graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School with a GPA of 3.86. This fall, she will begin her freshman year at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, pursuing her dream to become a neurosurgeon.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little girl. I want to learn more about the features of the brain. My uncle had a stroke, and he was badly injured. He fell at work, but he survived it. That experience has pushed me toward this field.”
Bitseat says that in Ethiopia, she did not have the freedom to choose her profession. “The government would have administered a test and told me I had to study the occupation they preferred. If they’d decided I needed to become an engineer, I wouldn’t have been happy. In order to become a neurosurgeon, I had to come to the United States.”
Not only has she been awarded her first Bernie Scholarship, but she was also awarded a Posse Foundation Leadership Scholarship. Out of 1500 applicants, Bitseat says she was one of only 50 to receive this prestigious scholarship, which pays for her full tuition.
When she graduated from high school last month, Bitseat says her mother was very proud of her. Her mother does not speak English, so Bitseat has had to do the grocery shopping, make sure rent is paid on time, and translate for her. “There are a lot of Ethiopian people in Silver Spring so she won’t be alone. It’s going to be hard to be apart from her.”
She thanks her mom for the sacrifice she made, leaving Ethiopia and the rest of her family. “I’ve been through a lot,” she says. “I have to pursue this education and make them proud. My host family passed away because of the fire, so I have to make them proud too. I have to make something of myself.” After she gains experience in the United States, she hopes to eventually return to Ethiopia, where there is a shortage of neurosurgeons.
In Her Own Words (Excerpt from a speech given at the Award Ceremony May 2018)
“I read a quote by Charles R. Swindoll that says, ‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.’ That’s when I started to understand that everything happens for a reason. God was trying to show me that death is imminent and that I should embrace life like there is no tomorrow. People should always look forward to the future and not dwell on the pain they faced.
Every individual has a story to tell, and I hope my story motivates you to think that life is a valuable thing to hold on to and that every day counts. Even though I had a rough start, that will not decide where my future takes me. I will be attending Bucknell University in the fall of 2018 with a full-tuition scholarship. I will use this (Bernie) scholarship money to pay for my room and board. This second chance I’ve been given by God, I want to use it to make Him happy and be His channel to help people. I want to conclude by saying that wherever life takes you, you must have the courage to stay stronger than your struggles. Don’t let it drown you.”