Kaleb Gezahegn heads to Yale with two full scholarships

Maren Dunn and Madelyn Shapiro

When senior Kaleb Gezahegn first started kindergarten in Ethiopia, he admittedly wasn’t the best behaved student. “I used to take toys from my kindergarten to play at home,” he said, smiling. But Gezahegn’s troublemaker phase was hardly long-lived—a few years later, he would be ranked number one in his school class.

Growing up, Gezahegn remembers being fascinated by his dad’s computer. “Once I got my [own] computer, I used to spend a lot of time on it, so I quickly picked up tricks. I started getting better at it and found programming, [and] ever since then I’ve never really dropped it.”

Right before the start of sixth grade, Gezahegn and his family moved to the U.S., and he enrolled in Alice Deal Middle School. In Ethiopia, Gezahegn’s school was taught in Amharic, the country’s national language.

His transition to Deal was made easier by the fact that he already spoke a fair amount of English. “When I was a little kid [my older siblings’] secret language was English, and I was pretty competitive, so I would practice English on my own time,” he explained. Gezahegn also watched shows with English subtitles that improved his reading comprehension. “We used to watch this Korean soap opera called Dae Jang Geum every Thursday… we didn’t understand Korean so we had to read the subtitles, so I think it’s those two that made me become accustomed to speaking English regularly.”

At Wilson, Gezahegn took an introductory computer science course his freshman year, and also joined the Wilson robotics team. It was not until his sophomore year that he started the engineering pathway.

The first time Gezahegn entered the engineering lab, “it was because there was a robotics interest meeting. I’d seen a poster that said free pizza… I was a bit interested and it would have been a win-win either way.” The team soon set to work disassembling a robot. “One of the lead engineers [asked] me to pass him a Phillips head screwdriver and I just didn’t know what it was,” Gezahegn said. “Over the four years I’ve learned a lot.”

As the current captain on the robotics team, Gezahegn sometimes spends entire weeks working in the lab. His passion for robotics led him to work closely with Andonny Garcia, one of the previous robotics captains who graduated from Wilson last year. “[Garcia has] been a mentor ever since I met him, we’ve been pretty close. He’s someone that I looked up to,” Gezahegn said.

Garcia just finished his first year at Yale University, which is the school that Gezahegn will attend this fall. “I knew that if Yale took [Garcia] in, then the people that would surround [Garcia] would be hopefully as great as him,” Gezahegn explained. Gezahegn’s weekend at Yale over spring break sealed the deal.

Gezahegn’s college experience will be slightly different than most of his peers, as he will be able to graduate debt free. Gezahegn is the recipient of both the prestigious Gates Scholarship and the QuestBridge scholarship. Created by Bill and Melinda Gates, the Gates Scholarship selects 300 students nationwide for a full scholarship, exclusively for exceptional minority students planning to attend a four year university in the U.S. Questbridge partners with several universities and colleges in the U.S. to offer early action full-ride scholarships to low-income families. Since Gezahegn has been offered two full rides, he is trying to see if he could use the Gates Scholarship to help pay for graduate school.

In college, Gezahegn hopes to major in either computer science or electrical engineering. At Wilson, he took three years of computer science classes, and also took an algorithms and data structures class at George Washington University. “The homework did take like three hours at some points, but it was something I loved doing,” Gezahegn said regarding Wilson’s AP Computer Science class. “I know that it’s a field that you can make a lot of money, so it never really made sense to just abandon that interest.”

After he graduates, Gezahegn hopes to continue to aide the robotics program at Wilson. Since engineering teacher and robotics manager Angela Benjamin, who has been spearheading both programs for many years, is planning to retire soon, Gezahegn hopes that he can help keep the robotics team afloat. “One of our biggest mentors, his name is Ari Taske, he was a former Wilson student and he’s incredibly smart… I want to help out like he does,” Gezahegn said.

Gezahegn advises Wilson students to follow their passions when selecting classes, rather than focusing on courses that could boost their GPA. “I don’t think anything in my application came off as… just a resume builder, or just focused on getting accepted into a prestigious school,” he said. “I think that was pretty big in my story.”