WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- By night, Alazar Yehdego works as a custodian in the Sherwood Center athletic complex at Whitman College. By day, when he's not catching his five-hour allotment of sleep, he's taking -- or teaching -- college classes and seeing to the needs of his three young sons.
By any standard, Yehdego is not your typical campus custodian.
A native of Eritrea and the son of a civil service employee, Yehdego fled his homeland in the late 1970s as it still struggled for independence from Ethiopia. He and new spouse, Kidan Tesfay, an Ethiopian, landed in Walla Walla in 1981 and proceeded to build a life that sparkles in its commitment to the values of education.
Yehdego added to his educational achievements last month when he accepted a degree in physics during Whitman's 116th commencement ceremony. The diploma is the second for Yehdego, who completed an electrical engineering degree at Walla Walla College in 1986, and who has taught surveying and mathematics classes at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) since 1992.
Despite his latest accomplishment, Yehdego expects little change in a life that sees him bouncing between his roles as father, teacher, student and custodian. He enjoys his late night shift at Whitman, partly because it gives him time for his sons (ages 14, 12 and 9) during the day and early evening. His wife, also a custodian at Sherwood Center, works the evening shift.
"Our boys have never been to a baby sitter," he says. "With our work schedules, either my wife or I can be at home when they are not in school."
One change ahead for Yehdego is that he might be teaching a physics class this fall at WWCC, instead of math or surveying, now that he has completed his physics degree at Whitman. Since undertaking his first teaching assignment in 1992, he has typically taught one or two classes per quarter at the community college.
And once the fall term resumes at Whitman, Yehdego plans to continue his practice of taking at least one class as part of his daily routine. He needs two more math classes to complete his Whitman degree requirements in that area. He also wants to take the education classes required for a Washington state teaching certificate. "That would allow me to teach at the high school level, if that turns out to be something I want to do in the future," he says.
Another possibility floating on Yehdego's horizon is pursuit of a master's degree in physics and math through the Washington State University extension program in the Tri-Cities. He hesitates to plan too far into the future, however, given a life so hectic that it leaves relatively little time for something as basic as sleep. "Maybe five hours a night," he says, not counting whatever catnaps he might sneak here or there. "What I've found now is that I can sleep anywhere I can sit down."
Yehdego traces his love of learning to a boyhood in which education was prized. "My parents very much valued the importance of education," he says. "My older brother was also a very good student, and he set a very good example. I enjoyed school and was a good student, except for Amharic."
The official language of Ethiopia, Amharic was a required subject, along with English. Yehdego's aversion to Amharic was understandable, since the United Nations had awarded his Eritrean homeland to Ethiopia in 1952 as part of a federation. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie then annexed Eritrea in 1962, sparking a bloody 30-year struggle that finally resulted in Eritrea's independence in the early 1990s.
Despite his reluctant study of the Amharic language, Yehdego earned a spot at Addis Ababa University (formerly Haile Selassie I University) and studied there during the 1976-77 school year. By that point in time, however, Ethiopia had slipped into a period of profound political, economic and social change, frequently accompanied by violence. Military leaders had disposed of Selassie in September of 1974, but unrest and turmoil continued unabated.
One government decree directed all university students, and their teachers, to report to rural areas for two years of civil service, ostensibly to help eradicate illiteracy from the countryside. But since the university community had played a role in the recent toppling of Selassie's regime, the decree was also seen as a way for the new government to splinter one possible source of political opposition.
To Yehdego, it was also obvious that the new government was even less accepting of his Eritrean background. "Under Selassie, as long as Eritreans stayed out of politics, it was okay," he remembers. "But after the new government took power, one of the military patrols stopped me and a few of my friends as we were walking along the street, speaking Eritrean. They wanted to know why we were speaking that language. They wanted to know if we were plotting against the new government."
Rather than proceed with their rural civil service requirement, Yehdego and a friend made plans to flee the country. In December of 1977, they paid a guide to walk them through the desert from eastern Ethiopia to neighboring Somali. To avoid detection by military patrols, they stayed off the main roads and walked only at night, resting and hiding during the day. They stayed in Somalia for two weeks and then spent another month in Sudan. From there, Yehdego relocated to Saudi Arabia, where he and his wife were married before leaving for the United States in September of 1980.
They stayed in Portland, Oregon, that fall before moving to the Walla Walla area early the next year.
Yehdego began working at Whitman in August of 1981 while continuing his educational pursuits. Meanwhile, his wife earned her high school equivalency diploma through the community college, followed by her licensed practical nursing degree. She has worked full-time at Whitman since August of 1982, although she also works part-time as an LPN at St. Mary Hospital.
After watching political developments in Eritrea from afar for more than a decade, Yehdego rejoiced when a referendum finalized the country's independence in 1993. Then, in December of 1997, he returned to Eritrea for the first time and visited his mother before she passed away.
His home, however, bore little resemblance to what he remembered as a fleeing 17-year-old. Both of his brothers had long since died as part of Eritrea's struggle for independence, and his sister had died shortly before his visit.
"So much had changed since I left," he said. "I felt like a stranger there."