I have the wonderful opportunity to volunteer at a tutoring program in DC, with a pioneer for the advancement of education. As his vision grows; his foundation is gaining momentum. TEF highlights Abiye Tekle, Founder of the Ethiopian American Spelling Bee (EASB):
Abiye Tekle: Thank you for The Ethiopian Foundation for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself and Ethiopian American Spelling Bee.
1. How did EASB get started? What is its history?
Ethiopian American Spelling Bee got started as a result of my encounter with some Indian friends at an educational venue. My knowledge of spelling bee competition was limited only to National Scripps Spelling Bee until I had the privilege to be present at the South Asian Spelling Bee contest in Maryland with some friends. After seeing these young Indian American children competing in these educational contest a light went on in my head and began the process to emulate this program for our community and before you know it EASB was formed. After much research, EASB recognizes the need to improve English language skills of the children in our community, and we took it upon ourselves to conduct spelling bee/vocabulary contest both here in the US and in Ethiopia.
2. You have a lot of passion and drive regarding this topic, where does it come from?
My drive and passion for spelling or education in general comes from my love for books and languages. I’m really fascinated about languages especially the Romance and Germanic in particular the English language. I remember as a kid staying up late trying to catch the English language broadcast on Ethiopian TV., and trying my hardest to read the Ethiopian Herald English newspaper as a sixth grader. I’m also a big admirer of etymology, to give you one example of the intricacy of the English language. This is rich and comforting, think of the word PACIFY it means to alloy the anger of agitation of: sooth, when you break it down, a parent who wants to win a little peace and quiet might give a fussy baby a pacifier. An employer seeking to avoid worker discontent might pay employees well. These actions may seem unrelated, but, etymologically speaking, they have a lot in common. Both “pacifier” and “pay” are ultimately derived from “pax” the latin word for “peace”. As you may have guessed “pax” is also the source of our word “peace”. “pacify” comes to us through middle English “pacifien”, from the latin verb “pacifiecare” which derives from “pax”.
3. Who do you look to as an inspiration?
This may sound odd to many people, but I get my inspiration from reading (Books). If you come to my house, my living room has a big library and reading section. I could happily say that I have close to 800 books in my home library. I was exposed to reading at an early age; there was this book in my house in Ethiopia growing up “Great Men” in it there was a story about Homer, the blind author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I used to read it over and over again. To this day, I’m grateful to that book and many more which were inspirational to me.
4. What is your vision for EASB?
EASB fosters an environment that inspires academic excellence, leadership and family cohesion; we believe that with a love for education comes along a love for country, friends, and one another. I would like EASB to play a pivotal role as an educational forum in Ethiopian American community here in US and also in Ethiopia. EASB with its partners and sponsors will work diligently to raise the value of literacy within the community by staging major celebratory events, which will involve the family, local and national business and community organizations. The future of Ethiopia and Ethiopian American community is dependent on education. The cornerstone of education is literacy and the backbone of literacy is reading and reading is dependent on spelling. Most young readers don’t know enough words to enjoy reading. EASB’s vision is for all children to be literate and develop a love for reading.
In my vision for EASB, I would take the Indian American community as the perfect minority model. The Indian American community consisting less than 1% of US population, they represent 11% of National Scripps Spelling Bee competitors, and 7 out of the last 10 winners of this competition were Indian American children. The success of Indian Americans is also ascribed to the culture they bring with them, which places strong emphasis on academic achievement. Exhibit A is the spelling bee, which requires long hours studying etymology and memorizing word lists. What makes the Indian American community unique is their emphasis on education and love and respect for knowledge, tremendous support from their communities and the determination to work hard is what makes them successful.
Forming familial values such as education and a strong work and study ethic play a role in the success of the children and their studies, furthermore important is the family involvement. The spelling bee engages the entire family, with parents and other siblings often serving as motivators and coaches.
5. What brings you the most joy about this program?
I’m privileged to be the founder of this life changing organization. What drives me going and brings me joy is the realization and the potential this program holds. This program has the capacity to change lives beyond our wildest imaginations. In 2012 National Scripps Spelling Bee final there is Nejat Alkadir the first Ethiopian American to come this far in this highly regarded competition. Nejat learn to read at age 3 and half then started participating spelling bee competitions at her school and after 2 unsuccessful attempts, she made to the final of the competition. (View video of Nejat on EASB Facebook page). My spelling bee tutorial programs at various locations in Washington DC area, the students and family involvement make my efforts worthwhile.
6. What were you like as an Ethiopian student and how does it connect to being the founder of EASB?
I’ve always been fond of books, I was 16 years of age when I received my first book gift, and it was a book called Cujo by Stephen King. It was my first English novel, I had attempted to read and because of my limited vocabulary, I experienced quite a challenge. Although it took me twice as much time, I was able to finish the book with the help of a pocket size dictionary. As a child, I developed an ever-growing fondness for books that delighted my imagination. I devoured all sort of Amharic books as a child. It might have been easy for me to drop reading books after my encounter with Cujo, but I was on fire about books. Time has passed and my reading habit and ability throughout my schools years improved. My vocabulary and understanding of language patterns expanded greatly, thus I decided to form EASB as to extend my love of books and knowledge.