During his freshman year at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Hordofa Burka didn’t say much. He had just arrived from Ethiopia and didn’t understand English. Four years later, Burka is on the honor roll and has been selected as one of two Minnesota recipients of the prestigious Horatio Alger National Scholarship, which comes with $22,000 to attend any college.
“There aren’t many kids who work quite as hard as he does,” said Caroline Church, assistant director with the college preparation program Upward Bound at Como. “He’s in Advanced Placement classes and has gotten into every single one of his colleges. That to me is amazing.”
What makes it more amazing is Burka’s past.
He does not know much about his childhood, only that his parents were farmers in Ethiopia, and that shortly after he was born, his father was likely killed by government forces. His mother fled to Kenya with other ethnic Oromo refugees and left her five children in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
“After they took my father’s life, she thought they would follow and kill her, too,” said Burka, who grew up knowing his mother only as a face in a framed photo on the wall and an occasional voice on the telephone from Kenya encouraging him to do well in school and stay out of trouble.
“I look back, and now I feel guilty,” he said. “I did not have strong feelings for her then. I did not miss her.”
In Ethiopia, two older sisters worked to support the orphaned family. They told Burka and a middle brother and sister to focus on school and not to dwell on their mother or worry about the future. In 2007, Burka’s mother received permission to enter the United States as a refugee. Five years later in April 2012, Burka and three of his siblings joined her in Minnesota.
“It was really emotional when I met my mom,” said Burka. “Everybody cried. She brought flowers, a lot of flowers. She wouldn’t believe I was this tall. She was happy and laughing. No one went to bed that night.”
The following Monday, he entered eighth grade in Mounds View, where he finished the year. His mother moved to St. Paul, and he started at Como Park in that fall.
“In Ethiopia, most of my friends I hung out with were smart kids,” he said. “But when I came here, I couldn’t figure out what was what. Who is what. I was the only fish in the ocean.”
School had always given his life focus, and he threw himself into learning English and doing well. By sophomore year he had left ELL (English Language Learner) classes and was earning As in accelerated classes.
“He makes it look really easy,” said Church, who meets with Burka and nearly 30 other Como students twice a week after school as part of the federally-funded Upward Bound. “But he’s taking these Advanced Placement classes with fairly tough readings, and I’m fairly certain he’s reading these text book chapters two or three or four times before a test to make sure he really understands it.”
Burka got help studying for the SAT and ACT college entrance exams and applying for colleges and scholarships from Upward Bound and College Possible, which also supports low-income high school students whose parents did not graduate from college.
“I got involved with lots of programs and I made friends, and that put me in the way of opening doors for me,” he said. “That’s how my life changed. For a student like me, I wouldn’t have made it this far without that. I wouldn’t do good in my classes. I would have lots of stress. I would worry about paying for college.”
Burka also gives credit to his mother, Meratu Bogoso, who is illiterate and speaks only Oromo, but fiercely supports her son’s education.
“I always thought if she was educated, with her mind and her experience, she might be a doctor or even a governor. She’s really an amazing woman.”
Burka is no longer worried. He has been accepted to nine colleges, including the University of Minnesota and St. John’s University. The Horatio Alger scholarship, which comes with a free trip to Washington, D.C., has eased his concern about money. Now, all he needs to do is decide where to study.
“That’s my biggest challenge right now,” said Burka, who hopes to work in medicine, perhaps doing something to help Ethiopia or other developing countries.
“I’m trying to major in biochemistry or pharmacy, so I will go to the school that offers me the best support in those.”