Senior social work major Milka Weldemichile came to Abilene Christian University through ACU’s Bridge Program – designed to fill in the gaps between high school and college – but she’s already been crossing bridges in challenging transitions throughout her life. Now as she graduates with a degree in social work, she hopes to help build solid connections for others as well.
A Childhood of Changes
Milka was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but moved to Texas with her father when she was in third grade. She found herself adapting to a new culture, language and environment.
Just a few years later, as a 13-year-old middle schooler, she was placed in a group home – Christ’s Haven for Children in Keller, Texas – transitioning again to a new life.
“I moved into a home with six other teen girls, and I was suddenly attending public school, going horseback riding, doing lots of things I’d never done,” Milka said.
Within only a year of moving to Christ’s Haven, Milka faced what she described as the hardest decision of her life when her biological father told her that her biological mother, whom Milka had never met, had cancer. He urged her to go back to Ethiopia, and she did. After meeting her mother and spending several months with her as she received cancer treatments, Milka ultimately decided to return to the U.S.
“I came back to Christ’s Haven and basically had to readjust all over again,” she says. “I went back to school, but I hadn’t finished my freshman year, so I had to fit four years of school into the next three years.”
Coming to College
Milka knew about ACU – as a high school student, she attended Abilene Christian’s Cross Training camp in the Sipapu Mountains of New Mexico, and Christ’s Haven had several connections to the university. Her houseparents encouraged her to consider applying to ACU for college. Milka wasn’t so sure.
“I didn’t take AP classes, I didn’t have research and writing skills, I didn’t know if I had the background to even go to college at all,” she said. “Just getting a high school diploma was big for me. That was the highest I saw for myself.”
But Abilene Christian’s Bridge Program is designed for just such students – who have the potential to succeed in college but need additional support in the transition. The residential program enhances their ability to be successful in the rigorous ACU learning environment. Students also receive various levels of scholarship toward tuition.
“The Bridge Program is the best thing ever,” Milka said. “It was the only way I could attend ACU. Finding out I had been accepted to it, that I was going to be the first in my family to attend college, and that I had scholarships – it was like, ‘Wow.’ Just good news after good news.”
Despite the good news, challenges lay ahead as Milka looked to yet another transition. She was overwhelmed thinking about how to leave Christ’s Haven and start an independent college life.
Christ’s Haven includes a transitional program to help with the shift from a family home to independent living, including a place to live after leaving the group home. A transitional coordinator works with high school students to get them ready for college, trade school or entering the workforce.
Still, preparing to go away to college in another city without a typical parent or guardian was difficult, Milka said.
“It’s amazing to look back at how God worked,” she said. “I had no clue. I didn’t know what to pack, I didn’t know what to expect in the dorm, but it all worked out. I was matched with a roommate who lived nearby, and her mom came and helped me. She drove me around to get what I needed; she treated me like her own. She even purchased me a new phone. She was a Godsend.”
Confidence and Compassion
Both the challenges and the connections and support continued once she arrived in Abilene.
“As we moved in, RAs [resident assistants] would ask where my parents were, and I didn’t know how to explain,” Milka said. “Everyone else had a support system with them, and I didn’t know who would sign papers and do all those things. But, again, it all worked out. So many people helped me navigate – RAs, professors, my roommate’s mom.”
During her five years at ACU, Milka engaged with a variety of extracurricular and academic activities. While pursuing a degree in social work, she’s also been a member of GATA women’s sorority, African Students’ Association, Black Student Union and the Office of Multicultural Affairs. She’s worked at local retail stores and restaurants and completed internships at ACU’s Griggs Center for Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy and at Big Country Family Services in Abilene. She traveled to Honduras to work with an orphanage as part of a GATA mission trip and she volunteered at several Abilene nonprofit organizations.
“It’s been an amazing journey to look back and see the growth of my confidence in internships, mission trips, learning and teaching,” Milka said.
Cultural and Career Connections
Through her involvement with ACU organizations such as African Students’ Association, Milka said she also learned to embrace her early life in a new way.
“In high school, I didn’t want to talk about Ethiopia or where I’m from,” she says. “ But as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to embrace that part of me. The African Students’ Association helped me form a strong connection with my culture, as I saw other international students embracing their cultures.”
Milka also said her internships, mission trips and the courses she took at ACU have built her confidence and readiness to bridge the next chapter of life.
“ACU shaped me,” she said. “It’s taught me the importance of community, of church, of being intentional with people. I’ve done things I never thought I could handle, but now I can. I’ve seen growth through my education – not just knowledge but Bible knowledge, confidence and maturity. I’m more willing to jump in to help people, to carry on a conversation or to offer comfort.”
After graduation, Milka is planning to put her newfound confidence, as well as her own life experience, toward serving others as she seeks a job in social work at a nonprofit. She hopes to work with young adults or teens in a mentoring role.
“I’ve been told being able to relate to clients will be amazing,” she said. “I have gone through this process, and these transitions, and what people did for me, I hope to do for someone else.”
— Wendy Kilmer
May 5, 2021