Meet Arsema Abegaz: Education is a lifelong pursuit for this Williams College graduate
Accents: The voices of our immigrant neighbors in the Berkshires
By Reinout Van Wagtendonk, Special to The Eagle
PITTSFIELD — Born in Ethiopia, raised in Botswana and steeped in the very different cultures and languages of those disparate African countries, Arsema Abegaz speaks American English without even a trace of an accent.
“Being young and impressionable, I did not enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb every time I spoke,” Abegaz explains in her Pittsfield apartment. Now 25, she came to the Berkshires in 2010 to study at Williams College.
“And so I found myself putting on an American accent my first year,” she continues. “I do pick up languages and accents pretty quickly. By the time I was a junior, I realized one day that I wasn’t putting it on anymore.”
Abegaz speaks Amharic, the language of her Ethiopian parents. One of the stereotypes people tend to assign to Ethiopia is that the country has produced a lot of champion marathon runners.
“Well …,” she says, with the exact ironic inflection any American-born 20-something would add. “In high school, I ran cross-country.” She was actually good enough to be considered for Botswana’s national team.
“It is a stereotype because to some extent it’s true,” she says. “That is one of the most positive stereotypes that has come out of Ethiopia.”
Negative stereotypes are linked to Ethiopia’s terrible famine of the 1980s.
“Many still believe that we are still in poverty,” Abegaz says. “It is something we struggle with. The image of the starving child with flies around them still has to be moved away from our image.”
Her father grew up in areas of rural Ethiopia that were hardest hit by poverty.
“My father found at a young age that there was really only one way out of poverty and that was to educate himself. He was consistently the top student in his school and that got him a scholarship to study and get his Ph.D. in the U.S. at Oklahoma State University in the 1960s.”
After teaching at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia’s capital, Dr. Berhanu Abegaz Gashe, a professor of microbiology, took a job at the University of Botswana. Ethiopia and Botswana, a neighbor of South Africa, are about as far away from each other as the Berkshires are from Mexico City.
That’s why Arsema was mostly raised with the British English spoken in Botswana, one of Africa’s wealthiest, most stable countries.
“Fortunately for me, my father’s really good job afforded us a really good lifestyle,” she says about her life in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone. “I was always private-schooled, never really had to use public transportation.”
Her upbringing was strict, though; her father’s belief in the power of education became hers.
“This is what my parents trained me for,” Abegaz says about her scholarship track through The Hill School, a prep school in Pottstown, Pa., and Williams College after that.
She emphasizes several times how fortunate she feels in life. She knew nothing about Williamstown or the Berkshires before she arrived and still vividly recalls her first impression.
“The view of the mountains, the view of the green land. … Coming from an arid country where everything was brown and dry desert land, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.”
Abegaz gushes about her role as a data scientist at the quickly expanding Zogics, an e-commerce company for the fitness industry based in Lee.
Next to her full-time job, she is still not done with education and is working toward a master's in business at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Last year she was recognized as one of the Berkshires’ “most outstanding young professionals” with a spot on Berkshire Community College’s 40 Under Forty list.
Perhaps her only regret is the accent that she lost.
“With age, you become more proud of who you are and more proud of your roots,” she says. “And you want to share that with more people. I kind of whish I kept that part of me” — the accent — “that did make me different.”
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