Haben Legesse ’23 knows where he wants to make a difference as an engineer. The problems he wants to solve are not theoretical or abstract—he has lived with them and seen their effects firsthand. Now a student in the civil engineering program at Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science , Legesse was born in the small village of Ksad Aguruf in the African country of Eritrea.
“When I was in Eritrea, my family did not have running water or electricity. There were very few roads, and the ones that existed were very rough. You would not see many cars,” says Legesse.
I really want to go back and improve people’s lives. A small change is a big thing.—Haben Legesse
Unrest in Eritrea forced his family and many others to relocate to Ethiopia, where they lived in a refugee camp for four years. With limited electricity and access to running water, he saw every day that many people were struggling to find basic necessities.
“If you are born and raised with running water, you don’t think about stuff like that. But where I am from, many people are traveling 2-3 miles to get water to drink,” says Legesse. “And who knows how clean the water from that well is.”
Remembering His Roots
Legesse and his family were given the opportunity to come to the United States, and they settled in the City of Syracuse. He started in the Syracuse City School District in sixth grade.
“It was a very tough process for my family,” says Legesse. “My mom and dad did not have the opportunity to go to school, so they pushed me to take every educational opportunity I was given.”
As he mastered the English language, Legesse also excelled in math and science. “There were a lot of teachers who helped me a lot,” says Legesse.
At Nottingham High School, he began talking with teachers and guidance counselors about what he wanted to do after graduation. With his strong math and science skills, Legesse saw engineering as a natural fit.
“There was one thing I always wanted to do,” says Legesse. “When I came to America, it was a whole different place from where I came from in Eritrea. Here, they have electricity and running water everywhere. I knew that I wanted to help people in need, people who are struggling in Eritrea.”
The best way to do that, Legesse decided, was to pursue a degree in civil engineering. He wanted to learn as much as he could about construction, infrastructure, utilities and transportation networks.
“I want to go back to my country, and I really want to help people have running water, stable homes they can live in and—if I have the opportunity to build them—roads connecting smaller areas with bigger cities.”
An Orange Home
He also knew exactly where he wanted to go to get started.
“I could see Syracuse University from my house,” Legesse recalls. “I used to walk around campus, and I fell in love with the school. This place felt like home, and this was a place where I wanted to be.”
He was accepted and started at the College of Engineering and Computer Science in Fall 2019. For Legesse, the classwork was everything he hoped it would be. He loved the group projects he was assigned in ECS 101 and the opportunities for hands-on engineering work like surveying on the Quad or testing bridge designs.
“I wasn’t thinking about how difficult it was; I was just having fun with it,” says Legesse. “Once you know what is going on, things start coming to you. It opens up so many things. After using the math and the physics you learn for hands-on things, you just want to see more of it.”
“In my ECS 101 Introduction to Engineering class, Haben was always excited to learn new things, to share his story and to learn yours, all with an eye toward the future. His joy and passion for learning made him fun to work with,” says Professor Joan Dannenhoffer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering .
I used to walk around campus, and I fell in love with the school. This place felt like home, and this was a place where I wanted to be.—Haben Legesse
Adjusting to college can be a difficult process for anyone, and Legesse appreciates everyone who helped him adapt to his new environment. He was one of the first to sign up to be a peer mentor for the summer of 2020, knowing that he could provide similar guidance to incoming first-year students on where things are, what they will need and how to manage a busy schedule.
“I know how tough that can be, so I wanted to offer my help to students,” says Legesse. “That bond is still there. I still meet with them and make sure everything is going well for them.”
Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Chair Andria Costello Staniec says Legesse has been a pleasure to work with and has already made a significant impact on the entire department.
“He is always willing to lend a hand and has joined me often in talking to prospective students about Syracuse University and his experiences here. His enthusiasm, knowledge and worldwide perspective will make him a great civil engineer,” says Costello Staniec.
Legesse is still deciding which aspect of civil engineering he would like to focus on, but he is certain of one thing: He will be uniquely suited to improve the crucial infrastructure that Eritrea needs.
“So many things become clear when you live through them. I have been there. Since I have seen how it is, I have a good vision of what the problem is and how to fix it,” says Legesse. “I really want to go back and improve people’s lives. A small change is a big thing.”