Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.
SPRINGFIELD — Late at night, he used to relax in the glow of the television as his mother finished her homework. Ezana Gebru, a sixth-grader at the time, would sprawl out in the green leather chair and watch reruns of old sitcoms, mainly "Seinfeld," before falling asleep.
Meanwhile, in the darkened living room, after a full day of work, an evening of college classes and the normal duties as mother to Ezana, his older brother and two younger sisters, Selamawit Asfaw would be at work once again: papers strewn across the table, math textbook open.
She'd earned that homework. She'd escaped persecution, learned a foreign language, traveled across an ocean and lived in abject poverty for the chance to do that homework.
She and Ezana's father, Zerebrook Gebru, had done that for themselves — yes, the Ethiopian refugees had worked their way into St. Louis' middle class — but more so, they'd done it to give their children the opportunities that have become American cliches.
"You're going to be a doctor," is what she'd tell Ezana when he was a child. He'd play along, but the notion never really sunk in.
Now 25, Ezana has idled in college for seven years and remains a semester away from bachelor's degrees in psychology and economics at Missouri State University. He has changed schools three times and has taken out loans every step of the winding way. And despite his parents' striving — a classic immigrant tale — Ezana is now on the same uncertain road as many young Americans of his generation.
A third of college students now transfer schools as Ezana did, and just 29 percent of Missouri students finish college in four years, below the national average of 33 percent. Over the past decade, average tuition has risen at least a few percentage points every year, and the average annual cost is now more than $10,000 per year at public universities and $28,000 for private universities. The result is an increasing average student debt — $25,000 for the graduating class of 2010 — according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt.
Yet in 2011, more than half of recent college graduates were either jobless or underemployed, the highest rate in more than a decade, according to a recent census data analysis by researchers from Northeastern University, Drexel University and the Economic Policy Institute.
The findings are more fodder for the rising sentiment among Americans, according to a 2011 Gallup poll, that the current generation is unlikely to achieve a better life than their parents.
Ezana has a few different notions for how he plans to succeed in spite of a bad economy, including a move to southern California. One thing that's working against him: He didn't inherit his parents' drive.
"I just don't have that type of work ethic right now," he said. "I'm in school, and I should be graduated."
To one, a life; to another, just a story
Ezana's relationship with higher education was that of an arranged marriage, understood only by knowing what it took to bring the two together.
For one, it took his father running for his life.
The year was 1980, and Ethiopia was six years into a 17-year civil war. Mengistu Haile Mariam had taken power three years prior and launched a violent military campaign known as the Red Terror, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in brutal fashion: starvation, torture, bodies reportedly left in the streets to be claimed by prowling hyenas.
Zerebrook Gebru was a young man with a few years of college education, meaning those in power had suspicions about him. And anyone they had suspicions about, they killed. Fearing for his life, Zerebrook Gebru made for Sudan's border.
He crossed the border one day at 7 a.m., he remembers. He and the group he escaped with had no money and one loaf of bread as they entered an Arabic country with little knowledge of the language. He counts a cup of tea among the meals he had in the days before finding work. For three days he hauled boulders at a construction site. When that job ended, he found work on a farm, where he caught malaria and was forced to return to the city.
It was in Sudan's capital city, Khartoum, that Zerebrook Gebru met up with friends who had fled Ethiopia in the same manner. Selamawit Asfaw was among them.
The two married in Sudan, and in December 1982, they left for America, ending up in St. Louis like many other refugees at the time. They were once again in a foreign country, with only $96 to their name. They were granted refugee status, which meant food stamps and three months rent.
"It's very hard to communicate the deprivation we went through," Zerebrook Gebru said. He has explained his past to his children, he said, but they didn't witness or experience that poverty. He says it's just a story to them.
Selamawit Asfaw quickly found work in a nursing home, which, along with food stamps, helped the young couple survive. Zerebrook Gebru eventually found on-and-off work for a construction company, for the post office, for a hotel and briefly for an information company before driving a cab at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Zerebrook Gebru now runs his own cab company, and Ezana’s mother teaches math at St. Louis Community College.
"Ours was the American Dream 10 times over," Zerebrook Gebru said. "You have no choice. You don't have a plan B. If I fail, what happens to my kids? I have to provide. I can't afford to be sick. I can't afford to be out of a job. I can't afford to slack."
Ezana doesn't dispute his parents' perspective.
"Honestly speaking," Ezana said, "I feel like definitely growing up I didn't appreciate how hard they worked. Now, I appreciate it, yes, but I really still don't realize how hard they worked. Now, I'm finally in college, and I do have a job. But they were in college, owned a house, had kids plus a job. That's way more business than I have to do."
Embracing a balance
All four Gebru children were standout students, blessed with intellect and advantage. But Ezana, the second son, spent most of his childhood balancing his parents' expectations with his desire to be a normal American kid.
At a year and half old, he could read the letters on the sign for Barnes-Jewish Hospital a block from his home. His parents put him, like his older brother, Danaye, in Kennard Classical Junior Academy, a magnet elementary school in St. Louis. By third grade he read at an eighth-grade level.
But he didn't get to play the sports he wanted to during elementary and middle school. He didn't want to be the kid whose parents picked him up from sleepovers because they didn't want him staying away from home overnight. He didn't want his parents to have accents. And he certainly didn't want to explain why his name was different.
"When I was younger, I hated it," Ezana said. "You get made fun of."
He promised himself he'd change his name as soon as he turned 18. In the meantime he experimented with nicknames like Zeke, but nothing stuck.
He remembers sitting in the backseat of his father's car, asking to attend the nearby Gateway High School so he could play football. Not an option, his parents said; he would attend Metro Academic and Classical High School. Unhappy at the smaller Metro, Ezana failed to meet the school's rigorous standards and after two years opted to transfer to Kirkwood High School rather than catching up in summer courses.
"When he became a teenager, he started doing what teenagers do," Zerebrook Gebru said. "Basketball and games and friends. I would have liked to see him apply himself a little more."
Among Kirkwood's roughly 1,500 students, Ezana drifted further from his studies than his parents would have liked, but he found himself in the process playing soccer, eventually embracing his Ethiopian heritage and developing a social life with nights out among friends.
"Whenever I have kids, I'm going to go for more balance," he said. Meaning reading and math at advanced levels as he did, "but also they'd have sports and a social life. I want them to have both worlds."
Ezana's cousin and close friend, Abraham Tilahun, 24, says that's a dilemma for many second-generation immigrants. Tilahun's parents emigrated from Ethiopia to St. Louis at the same time as Ezana's and are members of the same Eastern Orthodox church. He and Ezana were raised together and grew even closer during high school, when they used to convince their parents to let them go out at night.
"They think that once you finish school, then you can worry about hanging out with friends," Tilahun said of his parents' generation. "It was hard trying to make them understand that if it's a Saturday, you want to go out with friends. There's a lot of frustration with that."
Always one away
Ezana's experience is a stark contrast to the rest of his family. His older brother, Danaye, graduated in four years with two majors and two minors from Westminster College in Fulton. He is now pursuing a master's degree while working in information technology at Saint Louis University. Their father said he used to have to remind Danaye not to work too hard. Ezana's younger sister, Wintaye, has passed him in school; she graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., earlier this year. His other sister, Senayit, is a freshman at Truman State University.
Ezana has been slow to graduate. He blames no one but himself.
"Most of the work ethic got lost in the past few years," he said. "I'm not going to class as much and not really studying for tests as much. I'm aware of the change. I'm aware I'm not working as hard. I know how much it takes to do well in school and do well in college. I think, for one, the whole thrill or idea of being in college, it's almost like it's worn off on me."
In 2005 he left St. Louis for Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, a school with 1,232 students. It was the type of school his parents wanted for him, the kind of school where he went straight to the library after a poor test grade because, as he says, there was nothing else to do.
He spent a year and a half there in total, with a year off after his first two semesters in which he took courses at St. Louis Community College. After giving Clarke another try, he realized he couldn't be happy there. He was taking out the maximum in federal student loans — in addition to help from his parents — and $33,000 per year in tuition was too much to pay for a bad fit.
While home in St. Louis over winter break, he made a gut decision. He enrolled at Missouri State, called up his cousin and told him he needed to move out of his Clarke dormitory room. They left the next morning in Ezana's lime green Crown Victoria — an aging former taxi cab that was a gift from his father — and drove 12 hours there and back the same day. Weeks later, Ezana was couch-surfing and partially living out of his car at Missouri State; in the flurry of changing schools, he hadn't yet found a place to stay.
Most of what he owns now, he pays for. His parents slowly stopped paying his bills when he moved to Springfield, so he got a job waiting tables at Outback Steakhouse. He put in his time there and at a few other places before getting a job serving at Touch, one of Springfield's premier restaurants. With tips, he makes roughly $150 per night, give or take, and works nearly every night of the week. One night he made $1,500 when he served a party of 18 hosted by a former executive from Amazon.com. Save for sporadic help from his parents, he supports himself through work and loans.
"That's why I don't feel guilty anymore," he says, referring to his lingering in college.
He has delayed his graduation three times. He thought he was going to graduate in May 2011 but didn't meet the requirements. He was then supposed to graduate in December, but again he didn't make it. That's why school is the first thing his mother asks about when she calls — even on his birthday. His father can recall the conversations each time Ezana called to break the news.
"They're very painful," Zerebrook Gebru said. "Because with his mental capacity, with his upbringing, he could have finished a long time ago."
This spring, Ezana had to make that phone call one more time. Well into April, his father expected him to graduate in May and had planned on attending the ceremony. But Ezana will be in school for another semester, finishing up his economics degree and, he says, graduating this December.
"It didn't go well. He was pretty upset," Ezana said. "But, I'm sure he's over it by now."
Finding his footing
Soon, Ezana will have to have another conversation with his parents – this one to tell them what he plans to do after graduation.
A month ago, Ezana was looking into Missouri State's graduate program in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Now, his father thinks he is leaning heavily toward law school.
"That's my dad," Ezana said, explaining that he has little interest in law school.
He imagines himself in graduate school for sports psychology out in Los Angeles or San Diego. He's heard great things about California from his sister and from friends, and he's been thinking of moving there for about a year.
Two of his friends, one graduated from Clarke and one from Missouri State, recently moved out there. One lives in Culver City, near LA, and the other in Oceanside, just north of San Diego on the coast. When they moved, he says, the idea of California became more real.
This past spring break, which happened to include his 25th birthday, Ezana traveled to California partly to visit his friends and partly to test out whether he'd want to live there.
He split time between LA and Oceanside. He walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. He saw the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He met folks who worked on movie set trailers, who shared stories of their exploits with various celebrities.
Those were his favorite scenes, though he knows those wouldn't be the scenes of his everyday life. In Culver City, the median monthly rent is roughly $1,000 more than what he pays now. Once he graduates, payments begin on his several thousands in student loans. Nevertheless, he's confident he could find a job to make it work. He says he hopes to be living in California by this time next year.
He thinks California could be the change of pace he needs — the kind of place that will hold his attention. On his trip, he went snowboarding one day and surfing the next. It was the first time he'd swum in the ocean. The first day of surfing, he just boogie-boarded, laying flat on his stomach, riding small waves nearer the beach.
"The next day I got out there on a longboard. I paddled out there. I caught some waves, but I was thrown every time," he said. "By the third day, I never actually fully stood up, but I was getting my feet under me."