Every year, Washingtonian highlights people who make the DC-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan region better. Ethiopian native Matheos Mesfin, Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for East African Councils on Higher Education (IEA Councils), is among the 2018 ‘Washingtonians of the Year.’

By Leslie Milk & Anna Spiegel (Washingtonian) |

Helping high-school all-stars get into college sounds easy, but there’s a reason Matheos Mesfin works tirelessly—even sleeping in his office—during application deadlines. Three years ago, the 26-year-old Ethiopia native founded IEA Councils, a nonprofit that places immigrant and first-generation East Africans in top colleges. Washington boasts the largest Ethiopian population outside Addis Ababa, plus many Eritreans, Somalis, and Sudanese. Yet when it comes to higher ed, Mesfin found that even multilingual kids with 4.0 GPAs didn’t consider the Harvards or Middleburys. Reasons ranged from lack of awareness about scholarships to parents who saw institutions outside DC as an “alien concept.”

Mesfin knows what it means to come from another world. He enrolled in District public school after immigrating from Ethiopia in 2007 to join his mother—an experience he says took a lot of “self-navigation.” Another challenge came when he was awarded a Posse Scholarship to Iowa’s Grinnell College: “Grinnell was a place I had to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I say to my students, ‘There’s no growth in comfort.’ I always try to push them in ways that will be challenging academically, but socially and culturally as well.”

He and his team counsel more than 60 talented juniors and seniors. All of IEA Councils’ 100-odd alums have landed in four-year schools, including Stanford and MIT. More than just applications and interview training, the process involves taking students on college trips, reassuring parents, and outreach within close-knit communities that in some cases, such as Ethiopians and Eritreans, have been historically at odds. All of this with little funding outside Mesfin’s own pockets—he also works full-time for an affordable-housing nonprofit—and an eye on the big picture. 

“I’d like to see these kids take initiative, whatever profession they’re in,” he says. “I want to see them in positions of leadership.”

Continue reading this full list at Washingtonian
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