Nathnael’s winning Essay:
One of the most integral parts of my youth was spending time with the person who motivated me to enter public service: my father. Despite growing up in war-torn Ethiopia, my father committed to becoming a medical doctor and serving those in need. However, his eyesight soon deteriorated. He was diagnosed with an untreatable macular degeneration, effectively ending his medical career. As my father worked fast food and caregiver jobs, he remained disappointed that he could not help more people by providing care as he did in Ethiopia.
My father’s unwavering desire to help others moved me to do the same. At an early age, I alleviated his difficulties by completing bill payments and work forms. After I received my driver’s license and began working, I drove my father to destinations and paid for groceries.
Then, I sought to support other immigrants. At U.S. Senator Tim Kaine’s office, I helped newly-arrived immigrants file for asylum and state visas. At Bridge Start, I organized webinars where refugee students could discuss challenges with remote learning, receive free help on their college and job applications, and learn emotional wellness strategies from psychologists.
As it became more apparent that those who looked like me and my father were being marginalized by institutions of power, I again looked to help the vulnerable. I spoke to the Fairfax County, Virginia school board about the lack of accountability for school resource officers (SROs) who disproportionately used force on Black students and requested a narrowing of SROs’ role in discipline and additional guidance counselors. One effort, however, left a particularly lasting impact on students, all the while preparing me for future legal advocacy.
My alma mater, Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Virginia, was renamed in 2020 after I spent four years working to remove the name that dehumanized its Black population. My fight to change it alongside students and residents was initially met with school board opposition. The opposition lasted well past my graduation, but I applied pressure by organizing petitions and town halls with the local NAACP. And after the 2019 board elections ushered in more progressive leaders and the 2020 national civil unrest exposed the role Confederate namesakes play in furthering racial injustice, I capitalized on this momentum. This meant testifying at board hearings to remove the name of a leader who championed violence against Black people, while recruiting other alumni to do the same. It also meant proposing the school be named after John Lewis, a leader who championed inclusion and serves as an inspiration for all youth. Soon after, the board approved the change. These efforts received major media attention, but the most important outcome for me was that Black students felt that they finally belonged.
Through this experience, I gained valuable skills. I learned how to mobilize and be resilient in fighting for our most vulnerable, even amidst strong resistance and my difficulties dealing with confrontation and speaking publicly. By engaging with youth and residents throughout this effort, I was better equipped to address the needs of the community. Ultimately, my hope is that the name change campaign not only fuels my own service but also that of those around me, as I share the lessons I learned about empowering marginalized people.
In the meantime, my advocacy for students of color in high school led to similar work in college. While in Chicago, I offered professional development training and math and science tutoring for Southside youth. I also wrote a 30-page thesis on the harmful ties between the local school district and police department. Afterwards, I pushed the University of Chicago’s administration to redirect $5.5 million in funds from campus police to greater mental health services and cultural centers. Following George Floyd’s murder, I went to D.C. to voice my frustration at the police killings of unarmed Black and brown people. I then called on Virginia lawmakers to support HB 5013, a bill that would end qualified immunity for police in the state. And most recently, I provided legal services for low-income, Black residents of New Orleans, Louisiana who were abused by the police. While these opportunities helped me provide immediate support, they also fostered my ambitions of supporting people of color long-term, as they navigate the criminal justice system.
Pursuing my J.D. at Columbia will help me fulfill these ambitions. Engaging with renowned racial justice scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw will prepare me for human rights work. Columbia’s Public Fellows program provides career support and experience in public interest law. The Human Rights Clinic would allow me to apply this training to direct client services. Learning from such top scholars and programs while immersing myself in New York City, a global hub for public service, will help me better advocate for those in the legal system.
And with this legal expertise, I intend on especially supporting those in my home region. After law school, I hope to work as an attorney at D.C.’s Public Defender Service, where I would represent local clients in police brutality and immigrant detention cases. Afterwards, I will run for a seat on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors—a branch that passes school and court ordinances. If elected, I will propose policies such as removing SROs and eliminating qualified immunity countywide. I hope to then advance similar policies nationally as a U.S. senator. As an attorney and elected official, I will ensure that our justice system operates fairly for all Americans.
For my father, something different appears in his eyes now. Although his eyesight has only worsened, hope appears clearer. Hope that while his misfortune prevented him from making the impact he wished to make on the community, his commitment to service would allow me to do just that. Now, I hope to follow through with the opportunities I am given to aid vulnerable individuals navigating the justice system, while my father’s inspiration continues to guide me.