Fitwi Tesfahunei Awarded Displaced Student Scholarship with Plans to Alleviate Global Poverty

Tesfahunei, originally from Eritrea, wants to leverage his education to build systems that help lift people out of poverty.

Feb 12 2021 | By Amanda Waldron | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fitwi Tesfahunei

For most students in America, a facility for numbers guarantees some level of success in math and physics. But what if a person had to devote hours of time—time that could be devoted to studying—obtaining things the majority of us take for granted, like water and electricity? Accessing these basic necessities “cost me a lot of time every day,” says Fitwi Tesfahunel, who grew up in Eritrea in East Africa. In such circumstances, “failure has nothing to do with being lazy or lacking character.”

Tesfahunel saw first-hand how poverty can derail passion and success. Now working towards his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering—as one of 18 fully-funded members of the inaugural Columbia University Scholarship Displaced Students cohort—he’s leveraging his own hard-won success to alleviate poverty worldwide.

Created and administered by the Columbia Global Centers, the scholarship program provides tuition, housing, and living support for refugees forced to leave their home countries (including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Haiti and Venezuela) because of war, political oppression, or other reasons related to hardship, such as the loss of opportunities Tesfahunei long grappled with.

We caught with Tesfahunel during his first semester to talk about what led him to Columbia, and what lies ahead.

I believe engineering can play a huge role in at least diminishing poverty. I want to come up with systems to make sure that people—anywhere in the world—are guaranteed basic necessities such as water, electricity, and access to education.

Fitwi Tesfahunei
Mechanical Engineering

What attracted you to engineering?

I enjoyed math as far back as I can remember. It probably has something to do with my mom, who used to work as a banker and made sure I understood basic mathematical concepts at an early age. But I never appreciated its power until I took my first physics class in high school. I was fascinated by how theories can solve real-life problems.

When it came to pursuing my graduate studies, I applied to many schools around the world. Columbia University always stood out, not only for what it offers me in terms of world-class educational and research opportunities, but because it is located in the multicultural hub of New York City. I believe in a well-rounded learning experience, which Columbia offers in abundance.

How do you plan to use this scholarship to advance your work?

I believe my purpose in life is to give back to my community and, hopefully, the global community. For those in extreme poverty, daily tasks can require an enormous amount of time. During my graduate studies, I want to dedicate my time to solving such problems, to offering solutions for convenience that help to eradicate poverty. Sure, there are political, sociological, and economical factors that will need to be dealt with, but I do believe that engineering can play a huge role in creating systems that guarantee basic necessities, such as water, electricity and access to education.

Applications are now open for the next cohort of Displaced Student Scholarships.