College Resources / Forthcoming

Forthcoming: Interview with Barkotel Zemenu, an international student from Ethiopia studying physics and languages

Barkotel! Tell us about yourself!

I am a physics major (pursuing a certificate in Hebrew) and an international student from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I had never left my country until that one time in 11th grade when I came to the US for a summer to participate in Yale Young Global Scholars (YYGS), a summer program where I was brainwashed – for the best! – to apply just to Yale, early action. I came in as a history major, but later pivoted to physics. 

How did you decide to apply to YYGS?

There was a guy in my school who participated in the program when I was in like eighth grade. My sister and her friends had also applied for the program , so I had a good heads-up early on. I just feel a lot of the college application process is dependent on knowing when you have to do things well in advance, preparing for it, and being kind of strategic. 

Can you say more about the program? 

Yale Young Global Scholars, this link for more information. (Serena’s note: yes, he literally said this. Barkotel is an avid reader of and knows how I edit these. Applications are open now and due January 10, 2024)

It happens over six weeks at Yale with the same faculty/instructors throughout the summer, but it’s two weeks long for students. The program is mainly for sophomores and juniors with different academic interests. I did the STEM-y one, called FST Frontiers in Science and Technology. I think now they call it IST, Innovations in Science and Technology. There are other concentrations like Literature, Philosophy, & Culture, Politics Law & Economics, and Solving Global Challenges

People ask me “Oh, when you came to Yale for college, was there a culture shock for you?” I think YYGS gave me the heads up I needed to not experience much culture shock. Stuff like what people in the US are generally interested in, what they are knowledgeable about, what they joke about, the things that make them laugh, what the general common trendy things are. It was essentially a US culture crash course for early college/high school. 

But even coming here for the program wasn’t as much of a culture shock. YYGS is very international––more so than Yale––like 50% international with people from more than 100 countries. But at the same time, it’s 50% USA. So coming here exposed me well to this whole new world outside Ethiopia, both to the American and non-American side. 

It helped me ease into college and offered me a really great immersive experience on Yale’s campus. I highly recommend it. You get to interact with lots of Yalies. 

What was your first semester like? You did your first year from Ethiopia on Zoom right? 

Since the US Embassy in Ethiopia did not open because of COVID during most of my first-year, I did everything on Zoom. 

I actually started college before I graduated high school because to officially graduate high school I had to take the Ethiopian national exam which was supposed to be in May 2020, but it was postponed to “whenever the situation gets better” which didn’t happen until March 2021,and that was spring of my first year. Most of my friends were studying for it throughout my whole first year. I pretty much ignored the exam until March.

But I’m so grateful to my parents for convincing me to take it. Because, recently, when I was applying for an internship in Munich, they requested a high school diploma which I couldn’t have provided if I hadn’t taken the exam. 

Anyways, my whole first year was online, with a bunch of 3 am/4 am office hours, waking up at the wee hours of the night for different extracurriculars. I’d go to sleep at 6pm and wake up at 2am. The internet connection was not the best in our part of the neighborhood, so I often called a cab to go to a nearby hotel lobby and use their Wi-Fi to attend my Zoom classes. But even there, the connection was sometimes spotty. I remember once I was in a freshman seminar sharing passionately about this reading, but little did I know I was just a frozen black screen on their end. I’d finish and they’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry, we lost you 10 seconds into your speech.” And I was like I am NOT repeating that. 

But my professors were actually really understanding and really sweet. They recognized all the issues associated with remote learning, eight hours away, and were really accommodating. Actually, after I came to the States, one of my professors invited me and a fellow remote student to her house for lunch. 

You’ve studied a lot of languages at Yale. What inspired you to study the languages you did?

When I came to Yale, I was not happy about the language part of the distributional requirements. If you want to graduate, you have to take a foreign language––and that didn’t make sense to me. I was almost going to take an English class to satisfy this requirement since some internationals are allowed to do that 

But I ended up deciding to take Hebrew, thinking 1) I speak a semitic language – Amharic – so Hebrew might not be a huge challenge. 2) If I learned Hebrew, I could read the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). 3) I want to do research at the Weizmann Institute of Science near Tel Aviv, where I was last summer. 

Even after deciding to do Hebrew, I was only planning to take the minimum number of required language classes  and then be done. But my first semester experience was so incredible, like my professor was one of the most organized I’ve ever seen at Yale! By the end of the semester, I was so well trained that I wrote a 250-word rhyming poem in Hebrew titled “Love or Money?”, recorded a 5 min video reading it, and got it published in Yale’s multilingual magazine called Accent! That made me think, ‘Wow, one semester can do this, should I try the Certificate?’ 

I went all the way to Level 3 (L3) Hebrew, but I remember L4’s schedule conflicting with one of my physics classes. Luckily, the department granted me a rare exception to skip L4 and jump straight to L5. I just had to do a little more self-study on my part. Without that exception, I would have dropped the idea of getting a Certificate. In college you kind of have to know “what to do to advocate for yourself” as Shayley once mentioned in her interview with you. The resources are there, but there’s a way of taking advantage of them.

I’m glad I got to continue with the Certificate because I ended up taking a “Hebrew and Arabic” class that not only helped me get a foothold on Arabic, but also gave me the privilege of requesting a one-on-one Arabic tutor from the Center of Language Study!

And 中文?我爱中文。I don’t know, Amharic, Hebrew, Arabic – they’re all Semitic languages. But Mandarin – with its tones, characters, grammar, everything – it was so novel to me that I couldn’t resist taking a Chinese class. I also have a lot of friends who speak Chinese, so I started building my own small vocabulary list with their help. . 

And for Greek, I’m hoping to take it next semester. I thought, well now I can read the Tanakh, but if I take Greek, I could read the New Testament too. Yale has a really great Classics department with a really intense introductory Greek class where they say you can read the New Testament by spring break and Plato’s Apology by the end of the semester. So that was another no-brainer for me.

What are your career goals?

In the immediate future, I’m working towards seven-ish years of physics grad school. The next time I consider this question I’ll be like 29. 

What matters for grad school?

Research. Focused research for sure. But it’s not like they expect you to have figured out what exactly you want to do for your PhD. It’s totally fine if you just do one thing or try out a bunch, but you need some output from your research – be it a strong rec letter, a conference presentation, or a publication. The advisor you’ve worked with over the summer matters the most. Grad schools weigh their letters almost more than anything. It’s less about “Are you a good student in class?” and more about “Are you a good researcher in the lab?” because that’s what ultimately matters in grad school. You have to be comfortable asking a really specific question for a really long time and face the fact that you might not know the answer during your lifetime. It’s a totally new territory. “Is this applicant on fire to be doing research?” That’s how the Yale graduate admissions director once put it. They care about your passion for research. 

You’ve published a lot of research!  

Most of that is conferences, thanks to a bunch of Yale fellowships funding my travel.  Without paying a single dime, I’ve now pretty much been to all four corners of the US: from Hawaii to New Orleans to Minneapolis to Washington D.C.  

But I am really grateful to my research PI, Prof. David Moore, for mentoring me to perform presentable research. He is so present, so invested in his mentees, and incredibly brilliant. I was really lucky to end up working with him. 

Do you have any advice for applying to summer stuff in physics? 

First off, I think it’s valuable to spend a summer at Yale to develop a relationship with a professor who can be your mentor for the rest of your Yale time. In my experience at least, it was super helpful to stick to one lab during my time here. 

  1. Pay attention to opportunities in your inbox, because if it weren’t for an email from the Yale Physics department, I would not have known about the Munich research program I did two summers ago. 
  2. Don’t hesitate to talk to upperclassmen, they certainly have a level of experience you don’t have. There were a lot of really awesome people I looked up to, and I participated in Yale Society of Physics Student’s peer mentorship program. My mentor talked to me about the programs he was accepted into, what helped/didn’t help in the process, what classes to take. Tips like that set me up since first year for things to look out for. 
  3. Make an active Google search! The physics websites for several universities have a page of “summer research opportunities,” like I know there’s one for MIT and Harvard. We’re planning to launch a similar resource for Yale soon.

What advice would you give to either yourself as a first year or like a first year today?

Be more than willing to pivot. I’m a history-fanatic-turned-physics-researcher, who went from “ughh I don’t want to take a language” to “hey can I have an additional ninth semester at Yale so I can do a Chinese or Greek certificate?” I’ve also seen pivots in my mindset, like I did not expect Yale to be the place where academics stopped being my #1 priority. 

Granted, some people become more sure in college of what they said they wanted to do, which is an important caveat, but I think no college student leaves college the way they come in, and that’s a good thing.

Barkotel’s interview is part of a series called Forthcoming, an interview series where people reflect on their educational/extracurricular experiences. If you’d like to be interviewed for Forthcoming, please fill out the form at the bottom of this post. If you have questions or suggestions for future interviews, please get in touch here!

No Comments

    Leave a Reply