Student chooses career path despite racial challenges

Abraham Alem, senior in electrical engineering, disassembles part of a power plant in his power lab where students attempt to synchronize generators Tuesday evening. (Matt Binter)

People often ask Abraham Alem if he is an athlete. When he responds that he is an engineering student, Alem said people are surprised.

Alem, senior in electrical engineering, said it is normal in society to see African-American males playing sports or in the entertainment industry.

“No one is mean or hates me because I am an engineer and a person of color, but I have noticed the perception is more of a taboo to see someone, a person of color, being an engineer,” he said.

Alem chose engineering because he likes it. Growing up in Ethiopia, education is important in his family. Alem said when he told his mom he wanted to study engineering, it was something normal.

“It isn’t a challenge to be an engineer because I am black, but it would be nice for people to use their common sense when I have a conversation with them,” Alem said.

He wants people to notice how society only honors people of color only in the month of February or on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Alem wants his profession highlighted, not just his skin color.

Born in Ethiopia, Alem has two younger brothers — one in high school, the other at K-State. He moved to Manhattan in the 1990s with his family. He decided to go to K-State and study what Wayne Valentine, his best friend since age 6, said was always in his heart.

From an early age, Alem was interested in music and the process of audio and a piece of metal turned into electronics. He spoke of his father as a “big nerd” who, at a very early age, taught him about computers. He did not understand all the workings and parts back then, but it sparked his interest. The flame has not gone out, he said.

“He is a very technical person. Because he is interested in that particular field, that reflects what person he is, doesn’t matter what race,” Valentine said.

Alem’s father, Peter Stanghellini, said his son is a good, well-rounded young man.

“He has a multicultural network of friends, from overseas to kids who live on the farm here,” he said. “But the way Abe looks at it, his race doesn’t even enter his mind.”

Being the older brother, he tries to point his younger siblings in the right direction, helping them with homework and being a role model. And in fact, Stanghellini said, they look up to him.

With younger kids, Alem is reminded of race and its importance because of its social implications. Being a minority matters in respect to the opportunities they will have in the future, which is why Abe tries to be an example for them.

“If I can do it, you can do it!” is what he is trying to show them.

His father said Alem is also honest.

“Even if no one is watching, he is going to do the right thing,” Stanghellini said.

Alem did not go to college immediately after graduating high school. Instead he worked full time, and then started taking classes part time. Eventually, he was able to start paying tuition out of pocket. Alem received his first scholarship three years into his college career. He is a Tilford Dowd Scholar. He went from part-time student, full-time worker to full-time student, part-time worker.

“I didn’t have money for college,” he said. “My mom is a very determined person. She thinks in terms of ‘Let’s be proactive.’ I went to her wanting to go to college, and she found a way to help me pay for it.”

Alem worked at Harry’s as a cleaner, where he moved into being a contractor and cleaner, essentially being self-employed in the end. His mom kept him motivated whenever Alem felt like quitting.

“I get my succeed attitude and nature from my mom,” Alem said.

Stanghellini agrees. He said Alem is very dedicated, studies very hard and takes pride in his studies. Math and all the upper level courses Alem has taken were not easy, but he is a very conscientious student and wants to do well with his grades.

“It has taken me six years. Finally, I am graduating in May,” Alem said.

Outside of the classroom, Alem also keeps busy. He is chapter president of National Society of Black Engineering and chairman for Engineer the Dream. With Engineer the Dream, Alem goes to middle schools to promote the idea that, as a person of color you really can be whatever you want.

As a Tilford Dowd Scholar, he gives presentations on how to be confident in society.

And as a graduate come May, Alem said he hopes to find a job or continue with graduate school.

“I am extremely proud of him,” Valentine said. “His circumstances weren’t always the easiest circumstances, but he stuck through it, and he is getting it done.”