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NCAN Alumni Spotlight: Zelalem Alabo, CollegeTracks Alum

Tuesday, July 21, 2020  
Posted by: Carm Saimbre, External Relations Associate
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The college access and success field is old enough that classes of students we’ve supported have graduated and are now creating the change we want to see in the world. As NCAN marks 25 years of progress in the effort to close equity gaps in higher education, our Alumni Spotlight series will feature the stories of outstanding alumni who have come through our member organizations over the years.

At a time such as this, we believe it’s still important to share the success stories of the students our members serve. We hope you enjoy the series and this week’s alumni.


After applying to and attending a fly-in program at the University of Rochester, Zelalem Alabo set his sights on making his dreams come true. He got his degree in digital media studies, and partnered with Upward Bound for his capstone project: a three-workshop series dedicated to exposing underrepresented high school students to photography, videography, and DJing. He created the promo materials, facilitated the workshops, and built a website to display the students’ work.

Knowing what CollegeTracks did for him, it was important for Zelalem to reach back and bring a slice of his college expertise to his community.

Read more about Zelalem’s story below.

Note: The responses below have been lightly copy edited for clarity.

Tell us a story of how a mentor or counselor helped you on your journey to earn your postsecondary degree/credential.

There are countless stories that I could tell, but there was one mentor who I kept in touch with when I was in college. My grades were okay first semester of freshman year, but I struggled in the second semester due to the classes and uncertainty of my major.

When I told my mentor about my situation, they personally looked into opportunities to get help on campus. Specifically, they reached out to administrators and expressed their concern, so the school got me in touch with an academic counselor. The counselor helped me discover a major that was a better fit for me and got me back on track. Since then, I’ve improved every year and attribute it to that one breakthrough my first year.

I am grateful for that mentor because they instilled a habit of being resourceful with my education and always asking for help, and because of that college was easier to navigate.

As a student, what hurdles did you face while getting your postsecondary degree/credential?

I faced many hurdles. Being a first-generation student meant that I was not aware of how to navigate the curriculum and make it work for me. I had to ask a lot of questions and pick things up from my peers. I lost my direction my first semester because I came in as a biology major but quickly realized that I didn’t want to study something I didn’t enjoy. I had to taste different courses and fields until I finally found one that fit. Not to mention I was also homesick and missed my friends.

Why was it important for you to get your postsecondary degree/credential?

It was important for a lot of reasons. There’s the fact that both my parents are immigrants, and they left their home so that I could pursue an education. It was important to them and was all that they wished for me. That also meant I was a first-generation student and it was important for my family as a whole that I set a good example for my younger brothers.

But most importantly, and this is something that I didn’t realize until I actually got to college, it was important for my personal development. Going to college came with a lot of new experiences that helped shape and mold me into an improved version of myself. It was my first time living on my own, I met people from places I’d never heard of, I was introduced to clubs and organizations that helped me get involved in causes I cared about. The intangible skills and progressions I made in college were just as important as the education I received.

What inspires you to work in your field?

Consulting has a broad range of impact on a variety of fields and industries that at least gives me the opportunity to see the world from different lenses. I find value in that because as a young professional, I like to taste different topics to get an understanding of how I want my career to go.

My favorite projects are those where I can see the direct result of my work. For example, I've been involved on projects to help large organizations digitally transform their business to adapt to the digital world.

In light of COVID-19, it’s important for students to hear words of encouragement from those who were in their shoes not long ago. What advice would you give to students right now?

For those students who will be graduating soon, I want them to know that no matter how dark things may be, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You are graduating into a world that no one has ever lived in before. Now, more than ever before in history, you have a voice. You have the world in your hands aka your PHONE.

If you want to work for someone you admire or if you want to talk to someone at a college that you’re interested in, send them a direct message through Instagram, Twitter, Tiktok, email – it doesn’t matter. There are a lot of ways you can make things shake for you. Be aggressive if you have to be because sometimes it only takes one person to recognize your gift and help you grow!

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