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Hard work, coaching and compelling essays lead to Gates support and U of M

Walid Abubakar and his sister moved here 11 years ago from a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

While in high school Walid Abubakar has worked full time as a security guard to support himself and to send $300-$400 a month back to his family to pay for his sisters to go to school.

The other day Walid Abubakar’s cousin texted him a picture of a largish envelope that had arrived from Gates Millennium Scholars, a program that awards life-changing scholarships to low-income students of color.

“I couldn’t imagine why they would send me a big envelope if they were going to reject me,” says Abubakar, who nonetheless did not get where he is by throwing caution to the wind.

He made his cousin who, infuriatingly, didn’t immediately pick up his phone, text him a picture of the letter inside which said that Gates will pay all of the costs associated with Abubakar’s college and possibly graduate school.

The first thing Abubakar did was to call Grace Fowler, the coach he has worked with for two years through the St. Paul-based national nonprofit College Possible. It was Fowler who persuaded Abubakar to write the essays and personal statements that this spring won him admission to an astonishing number of colleges as well as the funding to attend, worry-free.

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Fowler was crying too hard to say anything, Abubakar reported earlier this week, so the two hung on the line in silence for a little while. After they hung up, Abubakar sat, stunned, for a half hour more.

This year, 57,000 people applied for the 1,000 scholarships awarded. Nineteen went to Minnesota students.

You may remember Abubakar from a story that ran in this space in March. An 18-year-old Oromo senior, he had beaten the odds on a number of fronts.

Moved here from Ethiopia

He and his sister moved here 11 years ago from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. With precious little adult support, Abubakar sought out schools that would help him catch up, landing eventually at Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins.

While in high school he has worked full time as a security guard to support himself and to send $300-$400 a month back to his family to pay for his sisters to go to school.

Abubakar’s father drives potatoes from Somalia to Ethiopia along a road frequently ambushed by Al-Shabaab. Among the many things he thought about as he contemplated college was how to set his family up in business so they would not be dependent on his remittances or forced to work in such dangerous circumstances.

He almost didn’t try to enroll in College Possible, which recruits low-income high school sophomores with GPAs of 2.0 or higher — frequently the first in their families to even consider college — and provides intensive coaching until they have completed a degree. The organization serves more than 15,000 students in 45 high schools and numerous colleges.

Abubakar imagined the fact that he would have to leave the program early one day a week to work would disqualify him. He was astonished when Fowler’s response was to regard his full plate as a strength.

And Abubakar was equally flummoxed when Fowler insisted that the backstory he had thought was a liability was in fact something college admissions agents and scholarship grantors would take notice of.

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When Fowler presented him with the Gates application Abubakar mentally rolled his eyes at her. “I thought about the eight papers I would have to write, each of them a 1,000-word essay,” he admitted. “I thought the chances I could win are slim, especially because I wasn’t that confident in my writing.”

Accepted by all 10 colleges

In the end, Abubakar got into all 10 of the colleges he applied to, including Macalester and Carleton, two of his top choices. But he chose the University of Minnesota.

“I want to stay close to my community,” he says. “And since I also want to do a lot in the medical field and in engineering I know they have a lot of experience with it.”

Fowler will continue to coach Abubakar, but at the UMN he will also have a ready-made group of mentors, including a 2011 Gates recipient who is also from Ethiopia.

Medical school is the one possibility Abubakar is considering that Gates would not cover. If he chooses to apply and gets in, he will use a Horatio Alger Scholarship that, with the required match by partner universities, would cover at least $44,000.

Over the winter Abubakar lost his mother. She died the way people often do in a country where there is little health care, suddenly and inexplicably. Fowler’s gentle insistence was the only thing that propelled him to finish the sundry applications and write the endless essays, Abubakar said in March.

“I’m really grateful,” he says now. “I feel like especially in April my life really turned around. I can see a brighter future.”