By Brad Whitehouse & Marcin Szczepanski |

Netsanet Hailu, a young woman in her 20s, shuts her laptop where she is working on differential equations. As a master’s student in biomedical engineering at one of Ethiopia’s oldest and best universities, Netsanet hopes to one day design and engineer medical devices that save human lives.

“You have a brain that works. If you cannot use it to do better, to do something for the society, for yourself, then why do you have it?” she asks.

Netsanet says she thinks of her family as rather poor – which reflects the good fortune of her upbringing. Her father, Hailu Gurmu, sees it differently.

“I consider myself middle class,” he says.

Hailu did not grow up in this house, with its indoor plumbing and four-wheel drive Toyota pickup in the courtyard. He was born on the other side of this vast city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And he was not so close to his family then. Like his wife, he was given up for adoption.

At his home today, linoleum, a flat-screen TV, a stereo, table, and chairs are crammed with several couches in the small room. A family photo in a gold frame shows all four of his kids, including Netsanet’s older brother who is also an engineer. A servant pours home-roasted coffee into white porcelain cups, topping the dark fluid with a thick layer of milk foam. The home is part of a compound with housing for the family and several servants.

The family’s rise has mirrored the rise of the city and nation. The country is still transforming, and Netsanet the engineering student is a product of its economic and academic explosion.

Continue reading on the University of Michigan College of Engineering
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