Dr. Petros “Pete” Gheresus, Robert and Claire Reiss Chair of Industrial Engineering at Kettering University, has one resounding message about his journey from Eritrea (formerly a province of Ethiopia), East Africa, to the American Midwest: he didn’t get here alone.
“I did not get here by myself,” Gheresus said. “Call it the miracle work of God or the invisible hands of God. The probability of leaving Eritrea for educational opportunities was virtually unimaginable.”
Gheresus spoke about his journey at the annual Black History Month celebration at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Flint on February 8. The theme of this year’s celebration focused on “struggle.”
Gheresus’ struggles were plentiful at each point of his journey and now he’s dedicating his life to serving students both in his homeland of Eritrea and in the Flint and surrounding communities by sharing his time and knowledge.
One bed and one blanket shared with four brothers in one room. Two shirts and two pairs of shorts. No electricity. Divorced and single mother. That was the extent of resources and support in Gheresus’ household in Eritrea.
“This situation made it very difficult for my mother and brothers,” Gheresus said. “There was no such thing as my plate or your plate. We all ate in one plate.”
Gheresus supported his family by working six days a week as a janitor, dishwasher and a waiter at an officers’ club on a U.S. Military Base (Kagnew Station) in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. His salary as a waiter was $30 U.S. Dollars per week. He also worked part-time shining shoes and cleaning vehicles for American soldiers. The income was enough to support his family each month.
“It was a privilege working at the club because I could eat at the [U.S.] base,” Gheresus said. “I didn’t get to eat what the officers ate but it was far better food than I could afford.”
Despite his familial obligations and job, Gheresus wanted to go to school. But there was one problem: he failed his ninth-grade placement exam so he wasn’t permitted to enroll in a public school. Gheresus’ explanation of his circumstances was overhead at his job by a group of teachers, including Gladys Mower of Perry, Iowa, who happened to be the high school counselor at the military base.
“If you pay for me to go to private school, I’ll take one class and prove to you that I want to go to school,” Gheresus said to the counselor. “I took geography because it’s an easy class and I wanted to make sure I did well.”
Mower began to assist Gheresus in migrating to the United States even though he had yet to complete high school, which was a requirement to emigrate from the country. Gheresus at the time was 18 and had only an eighth grade education.
However, Mower did not give up on Gheresus. She continued to help him secure a passport and connected him with a family from Hills, Minnesota, who was visiting the U.S. Military Base. They agreed to sponsor Gheresus on Mower’s request so he could continue his education in the United States. In Gheresus’ mind this must be an example of his mom’s blessing coming true.
“My mom always said ‘God will never throw us away,’” Gheresus said.
Gheresus came to the United States as a 19-year-old with one year of English and an eighth grade education. He began his time in America by helping raise 1,000 beef cattle and baling hay “day-in and day-out.”
“That experience built my work ethic,” Gheresus said. “So today, in academia, when I see people stressed out, I say, 'we don’t know what hard work is.'”
While working on the farm, Gheresus started high school but with limited English capabilities, which proved to be a greater challenge than he expected.
“Reading was a problem,” Gheresus said. “They placed me in 10th grade. I could barely understand English and they were reading Shakespeare. I was not with it.”
With the help of teachers and peers, Gheresus persevered and graduated from high school when he was 23-years-old. From there he moved to Boone, Iowa, and began attending Des Moines Area Community College with the aim of becoming a television repair man.
Why a television repair man? Gheresus was watching Sesame Street on television and realized that the show could be a powerful tool to promote and educate children in Eritrea. So he continued his education at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, with the hope of bringing educational technology back to his country. Unfortunately, due to civil unrest, Gheresus could not go back. Instead, he continued his educational journey by completing his master’s and doctorate in industrial engineering at Iowa State before coming to Kettering (then General Motors Institute).
In March 2015, Gheresus will celebrate his 35th year as a professor at Kettering University.
After 26 years in the United States, Gheresus traveled back to Eritrea for the first time in 1992 and was distraught by the devastation that he observed in his war-torn homeland.
“When I went back, it was turmoil,” Gheresus said.
Having settled in Flint, Gheresus began to devise a plan to contribute to the recovery efforts in his home village in Eritrea and chose to focus his energy on improving literacy after being discouraged by the limited library resources in his home village. In 1992, Gheresus started a 20-year book drive that concluded in 2012 when he shipped 8,000 collected books overseas to the library at the Eritrean Institute of Technology. Since 1992, Gheresus has also been travelling back every two years to teach month-long courses at the Eritrean Institute of Technology.
“I have all the material resources I need but now it’s time for me to remember where I came from and give back to those who helped me by helping others,” Gheresus said.
Based on his own life experiences, Gheresus has developed an unwavering belief in the power of education. In his 35 years in Flint, he’s been active in the Flint Public Schools while also forgoing his summer vacations to develop and invest in pre-college programs at Kettering. Gheresus emphasizes that he didn’t get to where he is today by himself and it’s unreasonable to think Flint-area students could achieve success without the help of the generation that came before them.
“I am grateful that Kettering University continues to enable me pursue my passion helping others through the vision of ‘Community Vitality,’” Gheresus said. “Education will equip you with knowledge and information and that’s the best asset one can possess.”