News / The Diaspora

After losing parents to cancer, Ethiopian American preps for college

By DANIEL HOUSTON,  The Dallas Morning News   JUNE 18, 2015

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Semien Hagos works at her fellowship with the Dallas County Democratic Party Tuesday in Dallas.  Ron Baselice / Dallas Morning News

W

hen Semien Hagos filled out her college applications, she had to split her attention between preparing for her future and cherishing some of the last moments with her mother by her side.

The Lake Highlands High School senior had known for 11 years this day would arrive. When Hagos was 7, the doctor delivered the news: Her mother, Fantaye Asmelash, had Stage 4 ovarian cancer, with probably six months to live. Asmelash outlived that forecast. A few years later, however, Hagos’ father Michael Hagos was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in 2009.

Hagos visited her mother’s hospital room this year regularly as it became clear neither parent would be there to watch her walk across the graduation stage. Her mother’s cancer metastasized and spread from the spleen to the stomach to the lungs and the brain. She wasn’t mentally herself for much of the last year, Hagos said. On Jan. 6, Asmelash died at age 53.

In August, Hagos will start her college education at the University of Arkansas, where she plans to study international business.

“Both of my parents are sick, and both of them are not going to be here for very long,” Hagos recalls thinking throughout her education. “My future depends on me.”

But Hagos didn’t have to handle it alone, she said. She was able to live with family friend Lori Garousi throughout high school, after her father died and her mother could no longer provide a place to live. Teachers, counselors and friends at Lake Highlands High School were there for her, she said.

“There were tons — an overwhelming amount of people [who helped],” Hagos said. “Although I didn’t have my parents … the whole time, I had a great support system, and I really couldn’t have done it without all of those people.”

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Hagos was named captain of the track and cross-country teams and founded The Lake Highlands High School’s Red Cross Club  Ron Baselice / Dallas Morning News

Hagos said a tight-knit Ethiopian community in Dallas was a big part of the support group that helped her and her older sister throughout their parents’ illnesses.

“The Ethiopian community and the Lake Highlands community really stepped up to make sure there were tons of people to take care of us,” Hagos said.

High school counselor Shameka Brackens said that, despite the tragedies Hagos endured, she didn’t retreat from schoolwork or extracurricular activities. In fact, Hagos was named captain of the track and cross-country teams and founded the high school’s Red Cross Club, among other involvements.

“She’s a very sweet and compassionate individual, and she would do anything to help anyone,” Brackens said. “One of the things I admire about her [is that] even when she’s going through something personally, she’s still willing to lend a hand to those in need.”

Inspired by her parents’ story as immigrants from Ethiopia, Hagos said wants to pursue a career in immigration law. She’s always been interested in the field, she said.

“If you’re going to argue about something, it has to be something you’re passionate about.”

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This article is reprinted with the permission of The Dallas Morning News, where it was originally published. 

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