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From Ethiopia To Gates: One Man’s Story Of Survival And Fatherhood

Evening Edition

Aired 7/14/14 on KPBS News.

Michael Million is a proud father. He raised his two kids alone. Not one, but both of his kids are Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship winners.

Michael Million is a proud father. He raised his two kids alone. Not one, but both of his kids are Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship winners. That means they can go to any college where they are accepted, and they won’t have to pay a dime.

In 1999, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $1 billion to the scholarship fund. To qualify you must be the first in your family to go to college, be a minority and demonstrate financial need. Every year just 1,000 of these scholarships are awarded. If you win one, the Gates Foundation will pay for your entire college education.

For most of us, having two children win such a scholarship would be the highlight of our story as parents, but for Million, it’s one part of a much larger story of survival and resilience.

Million came to San Diego nearly 30 years ago.

He grew up in pre-Marxist Ethiopia. His family was in Ethiopia’s burgeoning middle class. He was fortunate and smart enough to be able to attend a prestigious British school.

In 1976, the year he was to graduate and go to university, revolution broke out. Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and a military Marxist dictator took over.

Michael’s dreams were dashed as his country fell into a chaos that became known as the “Red Terror.”

In a 1991 report, Human Rights Watch said, “During the Red Terror of 1976-1978, the rule of law has degenerated into the mass execution of suspected opponents of the government by the army."

Michael talks about being a young man amidst the horror, “A lot of people like me — I was a 12th grader then — I literally had to leave the country, cross the border to Kenya. I always wanted to be a doctor, but that dream was extinguished.”

He went from Kenya to Israel, then Canada and finally San Diego nearly 30 years ago, leaving his family in Ethiopia.

In San Diego, Million did pretty well. Eventually he was able to return to Ethiopia and bring his wife and daughter Miriam to San Diego. He opened up his own sandwich shop and had a son, Daniel. But he had his tough times too.

“I had a Subway sandwich store.” Million said, “And things didn’t work out — about four years ago we were forced out.”

Now a single dad, Million was on the lookout for anything that could give his kids an advantage. He heard about UC San Diego’s famous Preuss School on the news and wanted his kids to go there. He wanted them to have the opportunity he lost.

First he worked to get his daughter in, and after her, it was Daniel’s turn.

“Being accepted at that school is not enough unless you do your share as a parent and as a student to excel in that school,” Million said.

Excel is just what both his kids did.

Preuss is a unique school. It’s exclusively for children from families where no one else has gone to college. The faculty and staff are deeply invested in their students’ success. Every student at Preuss has a counselor, one counselor, from the first day to the last. They pay attention.

Daniel remembers one time when things got a bit tough for him, and his counselor stepped in.

“My grades were actually slipping a little bit,” Daniel said, “so when he saw that my grades were slipping, he would come to me and be like what’s going on here? And I’d have to talk to him about it.”

Miriam graduated and was first in her family to go off to college. A stand-out at school, winning the prestigious Gates Scholarship, Miriam headed to Johns Hopkins University.

Million recalls things weren’t quite as easy for his son.

“There were challenges definitely. The young man here has a lot of distractions,” Million said. “Definitely Facebook was a challenge, and phones, and maybe a little bit girls, but that’s growing up in America. I mean, he’s lucky enough to have those problems.”

Daniel succeeded and is now the second in his family to be awarded the Gates scholarship. Million looked back on his son’s success.

“He really surprised me. He caught on and I was really strong on him, pushing him to do well at school. And he did very well."

Daniel said he was inspired by his sister’s success and his father’s commitment.

“The family I come from, you know, like my dad and like my sister,” Daniel said, “I’ve seen my sister do all this amazing stuff at Johns Hopkins. And I feel like it just comes down to pushing myself.”

Million looks back on leaving Ethiopia, coming to San Diego, and raising two great kids.

“I did the best I could,” he said.

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