Falen Yohannes – George Mason University
By admin February 5, 2016
Scholar Falen Yohannes is making up for lost time. “I’ve lost 10 years,” she says.
Born in the United Arab Emirates, Falen grew up there with her parents and three younger sisters until age 13, when her father brought her to live in Alexandria, Virginia. Her parents dreamed of migrating the entire family to the United States, but unfortunately, only Falen and the second oldest sister made the move at the time. Falen found herself in a new country that was quite different from anything she had previously known, and she and her sister experienced tumultuous living situations with various relatives for the next several years.
Adjusting to the language was not a big challenge: “We were taught English as our first language.” The family is from Eritrea, an East African country bordering Sudan and Ethiopia, and Falen was also taught Tigrinya, the ethnic language spoken by the Tigray people in the Horn of Africa.
High school in America was “absolutely a complete different experience than Abu Dhabi” and Falen’s senior year was a particularly rough time. “I was in the International Baccalaureate [program] and I assumed that I was going to go to [college] at the end of my senior year,” she says. “Everyone is applying and I would start applications, but never actually finish them.” Falen received no guidance with her applications and was finally told that she was undocumented and would not be able to go to college at all. “I was told that…undocumented students are not allowed in any school in America. I found that to be wrong years later.”
She had a previous inkling of her status when she was not allowed to get a driver’s license. “Everyone in my family kept lying to me and telling me that I had no money for a car, so there was no reason to get a license or permit, which I thought was a little weird. I was not allowed to get a job either… I understood later on,” she says.
After graduating high school, Falen worked for several years and eventually saved enough money to pay her own way through Northern Virginia Community College, starting in January 2011.
Falen earned her associate’s degree in biology in August 2012, and again, felt the frustration of not being able to move forward. In 2014, one of her good friends who had moved on to George Mason University found out that TheDream.US scholarship was being offered there to undocumented students. “As soon as she saw that, she told me and I applied. That was literally it,” Falen says.
She entered GMU in the spring semester of 2015, still pursuing her biology degree. Her ultimate goal is to work with children in the medical field, and is setting her sights on medical school after George Mason.
I really hope it materializes – it would be just amazing, after all of this ordeal, to actually be successful and get what you want.”
She says, “I’d like be an obstetrician. I would love to work with babies and pregnant mothers.”
The rest of the family stayed in the U.A.E due to her father’s job – he was only able to come to the U.S. to visit his daughters once a year. But Falen did not see her mother and two younger sisters since she left the U.A.E in 2001. They finally met again when Falen got married in October 2014. She described the reunion as “bittersweet – joyous and completely unbelievable.”
Now at 28, Falen is aware of the passage of time and feels a pressure to catch up. While committed to her education goals, Falen struggles with juggling other responsibilities and describes her schedule as “beyond hectic.” She explains, “I’ve lost so much time as it is. I’m trying to excel in school and keep up my GPA, study for the MCAT’s and working – juggling all of that is really tough. But school itself is wonderful – it’s everything I’ve been waiting for.”
Her advice to other DREAMers is “to be hopeful, and to be honest.” She says, “I kept [my status] a secret for the most part. When I told people about my undocumented status, I always assume they’ll talk to me or look at me with vitriol but it’s completely opposite. They’re welcoming, they sympathize with me, and they want to help. So just be honest.”
Reflecting on her experiences, Falen says, “It’s so easy to get depressed, lock yourself in a room… and cut off all ties with people because you’re so embarrassed to tell them the real life situation, and no one will understand it anyway. But don’t waste your time. Pick up a hobby and learn something that will keep your mind active. Be hopeful.”