Hailemichael Geiger was just nine years old when he had to make a decision that would alter the course of his life.
He was living on the streets of Ethiopia with his father and younger sisters, working as a shoe shiner and begging for money. His mother had died, and his father wanted a better life for their children.
“We didn’t have a lot of money then,” Geiger, now 17, says. “We were homeless for a long time. We were just street beggars, begging for money.”
Geiger’s father took the kids – ages nine, eight, and two – to the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, searching for an orphanage that would take them in. One by one, orphanages turned the family down. One finally agreed, but only after Geiger’s father got down on his knees and began begging.
Geiger was left with a choice that most children cannot fathom. “I had to make the decision to stay with my sisters and watch over them or stay with my father.” He chose to leave his father and the only world he ever knew.
That was in 2009. Today, Geiger is living the American dream. He recently graduated from Parkland High School and is one of seven recipients of DeSales University’s leadership scholarship.
To say Geiger isn’t your typical teenager is an understatement.
He lives at home with his adoptive parents and 13 siblings, who range in age from five to 20. “Most of us are from different countries – two are from China, one from Uganda, two are biological to my parents.”
At Parkland, Geiger made a name for himself on the track. Loretta Dodson, the school’s head cross country coach, describes him as hard working, always smiling, and always eager to help his teammates.
“His sophomore year, he came in and we had a time trial and he finished second,” she says. “Looking and reviewing the trial, I just thought he had another gear. When you see him run, he’s just so efficient, so smooth.”
Turns out, Dodson was right.
Geiger held back because he thought it would be disrespectful to beat the team’s captain.
The coaching staff sat him down and explained that he was running for the team and that everyone needed to perform their best.
Geiger always did the little things — like running with younger teammates or congratulating someone on a good performance. Dodson credits him with not only helping his fellow runners, but also helping the staff become better coaches. “To me there’s a saying, a champion will do the right thing even when no one’s watching,” she says. “And that speaks volumes about Michael.”
It was during his racing days at Parkland that Geiger first learned about DeSales. He ran at the University several times while participating in the middle and high school invitationals held on campus, and he loved the course.
A friend first told him about the leadership scholarship, a four-year, full-tuition scholarship for students who have shown outstanding leadership in their high school careers and who plan to continue to develop those skills at DeSales.
“I applied hoping,” Geiger says. “I prayed every night and people prayed for me. And just, I can’t believe it. It’s still trying to sink in.”
To qualify for the leadership scholarship, prospective students must write an essay, up to 500 words, about their character and leadership experience using one of six traits, including courage, humanity, and justice. Geiger chose courage.
“It was a really unique story about courage and perseverance and humility,” says Linda Zerbe, dean of students. “He moved us. He told his story with humility and we thought he would fit so perfectly here and bring so much to this community.”
The student life staff received upwards of 400 essays. They narrowed the field down to about 30 and from there, chose seven winners.
In addition to Geiger, Gunnar Anderson, Julia Astram, Patrick Boyle, Isabel Caruso, William Fitzgerald, and Abby Garza also received the scholarship. “It’s a really interesting, eclectic group,” says Zerbe. “They don’t all fit a little mold and that’s the beauty of being here.”
Initially, Geiger was nervous about the interview process. But Zerbe and the rest of the student life staff put him at ease. “They just want to know more about you instead of what’s going on, what’s your GPA, what’s that, what’s this,” he says. “They don’t really care about that stuff. They just want to know who you are as a person, and that’s what I love about this college. It will teach you to be the best of who you are.”
Geiger is majoring in exploratory studies and wants to become a nurse. He enjoys taking care of others – from his younger siblings to his elderly neighbor Veronica, who he’s been helping for the past three years.
He began his weekly visits with Veronica — doing everything from cutting grass and gardening to simply spending time talking with her — after discovering she didn’t have any family nearby and had been paying someone to mow her lawn. “I thought to myself, what would you charge a lady? She has no income at all; she gets her money from Social Security. For me, it wasn’t right. And I told her, I’m not going to take any money from you.”
Geiger will commute to DeSales, at least for his freshman year, so he can stay close to his family and continue helping Veronica. He plans to join the track and cross country teams, and he’s interested in community service and traveling. He also wants to return to Ethiopia to visit his father, possibly next summer.
Geiger came to the United States in 2009 with a second-grade education and without knowing any English. Eight years later, he’s beginning his college career. He’s had a profound impact on those he’s met along the way, though he still feels like others deserve this opportunity more than he does.
At the end of each day, he’s grateful. “I never thought I would be here right now. I feel like I’m dreaming, you know? Because I never realized I’d have a life like this.”
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