FAIRFIELD — Maharishi School senior Yenet Tafesse has received a prestigious honor, earning a full scholarship to attend Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.
Princeton is one of eight Ivy League universities in the northeast, and is one of the oldest and most hallowed institutions of higher learning in the United States. Tafesse said she was shocked when she opened the letter from Princeton and learned she had been admitted.
She estimated there was a “95 percent chance” she wouldn’t get into Princeton or any of the other top schools she applied to, and that she would most likely attend a college or university closer to home. But Princeton saw her high academic achievement and strong extracurricular activities, and awarded her a spot.
“I was mentally preparing to tell people that day that I didn’t make it,” Tafesse said. “When I opened the letter, I read it and thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ I told my family, and they got really excited. I was still confused. I had to read the letter a couple of times.”
Tafesse applied to Princeton and about 10 other prestigious universities through a program called QuestBridge. QuestBridge connects high-achieving, low-income high school seniors with full four-year scholarships to the nation’s top colleges. Of the nearly 15,000 students who applied in 2019, just over 1,100 received a scholarship, the most ever in the program. The scholarship covers the full cost of attendance including tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and travel expenses. It is worth over a quarter of a million dollars.
“This year’s record number of Match Scholarship Recipients truly reflects the commitment of our college partners to support all students, regardless of their family’s financial background,” said Ana McCullough, CEO and Co-Founder of QuestBridge. “As a result, highly deserving, low-income students can dream big and reach their full potential.”
Tafesse has an idea of what she wants to study at Princeton, but luckily she can wait until she’s a sophomore in college to declare a major. She plans to focus on computer science, but later on her goal is to work as a surgeon. She is a member of the school’s robotics team, and got to visit the Ottumwa Regional Hospital, where she and her teammates observed the hospital’s robotic surgical arm in operation. That piqued her interest in the medical field, and she said she can see herself in that career.
Coming to America
Tafesse was born and raised in Ethiopia in eastern Africa. She lived in the country’s capital city of Addis Ababa before she and her family moved to the United States when she was 10 years old. The family’s first stop was in Virginia, where Tafesse finished fourth grade, which she had started in Ethiopia. Later that year, the family moved to Fairfield, and Tafesse enrolled at Maharishi School, where she has been ever since. She resides with her father, Deribe Tafesse, and cousin Yeabtsega Taffesse, who “feels like a sister” to her.
Yenet grew up speaking Ethiopia’s official language of Amharic, but had a background in English because she attended an international school with classes in English. When she arrived in the U.S., she knew enough of the language to converse.
Tafesse said she had some culture shock at first, but coming to Maharishi School helped her adjust to her new country. The school prides itself on its diverse student body, evidenced by the long row of flags outside the school representing the home countries of its students and alumni. Tafesse said this has made it easier to fit in.
During just her second week of class in fifth grade, Tafesse broke her leg, forcing her to ride the elevator. It wasn’t all bad, though, because seeing her classmates on the elevator gave her a chance to bond with them.
By the time Tafesse reached middle school, she had become an accomplished student of mathematics. This allowed her to advance beyond the normal curriculum. But math wasn’t her only love. She also enjoys studying English and poetry, and that’s not even counting her many extracurricular activities.
She’s involved in the robotics team, and is active in the Fairfield Interact Club, a Rotary Club for youngsters ages 12-18. The club volunteers at local events. For instance, its members rode on one of the floats in Rotary’s Christmas Eve Parade. In October, members helped install playground equipment in Howard Park. In February 2019, the members delivered homemade Valentine’s Day treats and cards to staff at Jefferson County Health Center.
Music is another of Tafesse’s hobbies. She started playing the violin in fifth grade, but put it down for five years until rekindling an interest in it as a sophomore, and this year plays it more than ever.
“I do a trio lesson with a few of my friends,” she said.
Yenet has an athletic side, too. She is a member of the school’s tennis team, and has been since her freshman year. She also does cross-fit, a form of exercise that combines a variety of functional movements including pullups, squats, push-ups, gymnastics, weightlifting and more. In fact, instead of going to physical education class at the school, she does cross-fit at Boom Fitness. She goes to the 6 a.m. class twice a week.
“I was never an exercise-focused person,” Yenet admits. “If I talked to my middle school self and told her ‘You’re going to work out,’ that would not go well.”
Tafesse did Destination Imagination for one year, and during her sophomore year she participated in the school’s rocketry team that built an 8-foot rocket that soared to an altitude of 1 mile.
Tafesse started thinking about college when she was a sophomore. During her junior year, her whole class went into a frenzy worrying about where they would go to college. Tafesse heard about the QuestBridge program, and that it has partnerships with 40 colleges. She worked on her QuestBridge application over the summer of 2019, and once finished she sent it to 11 colleges such as Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and of course Princeton University, among others.
While she was filling out her application, Tafesse was hard at work at an internship at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland, where she focused on robotics. It was an internship she had done the summer before, too. An employee of the lab mentored Tafesse as she pursued a research project.
“We wrote a research paper, which was under my name because it was based on the research I did there,” Tafesse said.
Tafesse said she most enjoyed the hands-on aspect of her research, working with robotic sensors. However, she recognized that much of the work in robotics involves sitting at a computer writing code, which she didn’t enjoy as much.
“I prefer work where I get to move around more, but I’m also interested in computers, too, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Tafesse laughed.