Speaking with Isaak Ghebremicael Monday night, I sought to learn about how he had maintained his connection with the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund and Program since earning a master’s degree in industrial engineering from SUNY Binghamton in 2013.
It turns out that I caught Isaak as he was about to board a plane with his father bound for their native land, the African nation of Eritrea, where Isaak will marry his fiancée, Selam Girmay, this Sunday, Feb. 4.
It’s one of a number of long-distance trips we discussed. The first came when Isaak was 18, as he joined his family, including his mother and father and three siblings, as they immigrated to New York, which he calls his “second home.” They lived in the Bronx and belonged to the Eritrean Catholic community that worships at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in northern Manhattan.
The Ghebremicael family came to the United States for the same reason that the vast majority of immigrants do, Isaak said. They were seeking an opportunity for a better life, with good schools that would lead to good jobs and a secure future. His mom and dad toiled at minimum wage work to provide a better future for their children. “They sacrificed for us,” he said.
All his family members except one are now U.S. citizens, and the exception is a legal resident, Isaak said.
We also spoke about another trip to a distant land, this one to Madrid, where Isaak joined other Pierre Toussaint scholars for World Youth Day led by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. Some of the New Yorkers had a chance to see the pope close-up and cheer his name when the papal motorcade passed by one day. Isaak said he can still recall the prayers and unity they shared with other young Catholics from across the globe.
“I loved it, meeting people from different places and cultures,” Isaak recalled. “We shared our experiences and also the opportunities we have in the United States.”
In Madrid, Isaak said the Pierre Toussaint scholars also had a good opportunity to get to know each other. Alumni of the group, which is sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry, met with scholars who were still in school. Isaak met a Toussaint alumnus who had majored in engineering and could offer information about good classes to take, study tips and tutoring.
The Toussaint scholars program is committed to mentoring and supporting 50 student-leaders of diverse ethnic, cultural and national backgrounds who attend colleges and universities throughout the country. Along with scholarship awards and financial assistance for school expenses, the scholars participate in a weekend retreat at the College of New Rochelle each June, attend workshops together each January and work on community service projects in collaboration with Catholic Charities, to name just a few of their projects.
Isaak said the right people surrounded him from his first day as a Pierre Toussaint scholar, including a mentor who had graduated from SUNY Binghamton.
Since gaining his master’s degree, Isaak worked for three years as a corporate supply chain manager for Walmart. Then in 2016, the company gave him an opportunity to become a store manager in Charlotte, N.C., where Isaak, 30, lives close by his immediate family.
Brother Tyrone Davis, C.F.C., executive director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry, said Isaak is “an unbelievably giving person,” who supports the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund and also regularly calls him to check in personally.
“You have no idea how much Brother Tyrone means to me,” Isaak said with very little prompting.
It also wasn’t very hard to get Isaak to discuss his “dream job.” He said he would like to work helping students much like himself before he became a Pierre Toussaint scholar.
“I’d like to give back to the community and to the program that makes me who I am today,” he said. “I’d like to make sure students like me get the right information to be successful in college.
“It’s all about getting the right information.”