Food is often at the center of the strongest friendships. For CU Denver graduating seniors Robera Oljira and Abel Mebrahtu, a bond grew as they dined on Ethiopian delicacies and sipped strong coffee. It evolved further as they tried to best each at billiards, ping pong and on the soccer pitch.

CU Denver students eating Ethiopian
Abel Mebrahtu, left, and Robera Oljira enjoy a visit to the Nile, one of their favorite Ethiopian restaurants in town.

On a recent visit to the Nile Restaurant in Aurora, Robera and Abel laughed and reminisced about their fast-moving college years. Like a flavorful Ethiopian stew, their academic career has been a blend of sustenance and spice – challenging classes and interesting jobs combined with outings of fun, friendship and adventure.

As this chapter of life winds down, they reflected on the rewards of attending CU Denver and talked excitedly about friends and relatives who will journey here – some flying in from Africa – for Spring Commencement.

Robera hoped that his oldest sister, who essentially raised him, can make the trip. Abel, meanwhile, is looking forward to seeing his mother and little brother for the first time in four years. “The graduation list is growing,” he said, referring to relatives who are scattered across the U.S. “It’s all gone by so fast.”

CU Denver Ethiopian students
Robera Oljira, left, and Abel Mebrahtu enjoy a light moment while studying in the Student Commons Building.

Between bites of injera bread, the roommates, who met in the Tivoli Student Union game room two years ago, talked about the role food plays in strengthening friendships within the Ethiopian community. “It connects us,” Abel said. “It reminds us of home, where we come from.”

New goals, new freedoms

The CU Denver years have been rich with new experiences for the two men, whose upbringings were starkly different. Robera’s parents both died from illness when he was young, leaving him to be raised in a rural village by older siblings. Abel, meanwhile, experienced a somewhat sheltered childhood, growing up in a middle-class family in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Both families deeply value education. “Life without a dream and goal is like a life without sense,” Robera said. “To have a meaningful life you have to have a goal.”

Abel grew excited when his father suggested he look to the U.S. to attend college. “The idea of just stepping out of the house and having all this freedom really appealed to me,” he said.

The self-described “city boy” didn’t venture out much growing up in Addis Ababa, where his father owns a business-products store. “I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere,” Abel said, citing gangs and prostitution in some parts of the city. “My parents were fearful of what could happen if I went walking around the city. My daily routine was school, home, school, home.”

Exploring the Mile High City

Denver’s friendly confines opened a new world, and Abel thrived on CU Denver’s “CU in the City” vibe. “It helps you see how real life is,” he said. Here at Colorado’s public urban research university, he switched majors from computer science to information systems in the Business School. “CU Denver doesn’t keep you in a bubble situation like a traditional college,” he added. “Here, you’re always in the real world – you’re going to class, working and meeting new people.”

CU Denver students enjoy Mile High City
Robera and Abel, both from Ethiopia, enjoyed exploring Denver’s many amenities during their college careers.

Abel also enjoyed playing on the championship-winning men’s basketball team in CU Denver’s relatively new Club Sports program. “Having those people to cheer and support me just felt good,” he said. “It was a team experience that I never had before.”

Opportunity has likewise knocked for Robera, who completed two years of university medical school in Addis Ababa before following his older brother to the Mile High City. Just months into his freshman year, the backpack-toting premed biology major was randomly chosen to appear in one of CU Denver’s first-ever TV commercials. “It was such a great opportunity to represent the school I love,” he said.

Although he grew up in a small town, Robera has never shied from exploring all that city life has to offer. “Downtown is right there,” he said, “so you think, ‘I’m going to check this place out.’”

Both students struggled to adapt during their first few months – Abel spent a short time at Community College of Denver before transferring – but they quickly made friends and began hanging out with fellow Ethiopians and other classmates.

CU Denver students playing pool
Abel and Robera met and became friends while playing pool and other games in the Tivoli arcade.

With more than 1,500 international students, CU Denver’s global mix offered ample opportunities for the pair to enjoy games in the Tivoli arcade. “We were always laughing when we were playing pool,” Abel said. “It was like a bubbly, small Ethiopian country.”

CU Anschutz jobs enhance learning

When not busy with class and friends, Robera and Abel held down part-time jobs. Abel first worked for the Colorado Clinical & Translational Sciences Institute at CU Anschutz and this year he’s been employed at the Center of Advancing Professional Excellence in the CU School of Medicine (SOM) as well as CU Online.

CU Denver student Robera Oljira
Robera Oljira plans to attend the UCLA School of Medicine, where he has received a full scholarship.

Robera is a research assistant in the SOM. He also joined the CU Denver student club, Future Doctors of Denver, and volunteered in the Emergency Room at University of Colorado Hospital – all while posting top-notch grades. He has been nominated for the Outstanding Graduate award in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and accepted into medical schools that include CU, University of Chicago (tuition scholarship), University of California-San Francisco (tuition) and UCLA (full scholarship). A lover of warm weather and the ocean, Robera is leaning toward UCLA.

CU Denver student Abel Mebrahtu
Abel Mebrahtu plans to return to his hometown of Addis Ababa, where he will apprentice in his father’s business-products store.

His interest in medicine stems from his youth when he saw firsthand the devastating gaps in health care in rural Ethiopia. Robera’s mother and father both succumbed to tuberculosis within a four-year span, and many days passed with little food on the table.

“Ever since I was little I wanted to help people, to make sure they didn’t face what I went through,” he said. In addition to research, Robera hopes to pursue global medicine so he can deliver health care to underserved communities such as his hometown.

Embarking on new paths

Abel, fresh off his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Information Systems, plans to apprentice in his father’s business in Addis Ababa. He hasn’t been home in several years, and he looks forward to seeing how things have changed.

He plans a deep dive into his father’s business, to learn how he got it started and managed to grow a successful shop. As the oldest son, he’s expected to take on the family business along with other responsibilities. “You’re supposed to be the roof – the pillar of the house and the person who manages things,” he said.

Pillars come in many forms, and Abel and Robera point to CU Denver and CU Anschutz faculty and staff who supported and mentored them. Shane Transue, a doctoral student and teacher assistant in computer science, helped Abel understand software coding.

Robera and Abel at Spring graduation 2017
Robera and Abel are heading in different directions after graduation, but will remain the best of friends.

Robera said Matthew Jackman, PhD, and Paul MacLean, PhD, in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes in the SOM, as well as “the whole lab,” were supportive of his research work. All the while, Denise Leberer, his pre-medicine adviser, smoothed every rough spot.

Now, as the best friends embark on a new stage of life – Robera to Southern California, and Abel back to Ethiopia –  they carry memories of camaraderie and life-changing experiences from CU Denver.

“It’s like the basketball team,” said Abel, proudly sporting his Lynx pullover, “the belonging aspect is very big.”

CU in the City logo