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Cap and gown bound: Chatfield senior knows who he is and what he wants

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By Deborah Swearingen

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series honoring impressive graduates across South Jeffco. Throughout May, we will profile one senior a week from Dakota Ridge High School, Chatfield Senior High School, D’Evelyn Jr/Sr High School and Columbine High School.

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When Aaron Abai transferred to Chatfield Senior High School the second week of his freshman year, he walked into his counselor’s office and matter-of-factly said: “I’m Aaron Abai, and I’m going to Harvard.”

Four years, a lot of hard work and a tough decision later, and his dream has become reality. Abai, 18, will head to Massachusetts in the fall.

“He has always been — since the moment I met him — a student who has just gone above and beyond and wanted the best of everything,” said counselor Jeni Weimer, who listened to Abai’s impressive goals and encouraged them.

The senior barely has a free moment, and it’s been that way for all four years of his high school career. He helped start the Science National Honor Society, and he is part of the Multicultural Alliance and Chatfield’s student government. Additionally, Abai, a science lover through and through, last year completed a summer internship at Children’s Hospital in Aurora, where he conducted pediatric brain cancer research. He rode the RTD Light Rail and bus nearly two hours each way to make it on time.

As much as he loves science in general, Abai loves the brain even more. One day, he hopes to be a research physician with a focus in neuroscience. It’s a passion that was inspired largely by his anatomy teacher Sophia Rodriguez.

“She loves the brain. Probably more than I do,” Abai said, grinning. “Being able to talk to somebody after class about how cool the nervous system was just made me so much more interested in it.”

But as much as Abai has learned from Rodriguez, the anatomy teacher learned quite a bit from him, too. She cannot say enough good words about her student.

“He’s the whole package,” Rodriguez said. “He embodies leadership, humility, kindness. He’s brilliant. He’s intelligent. He’s a leader.

“You look at this kid, and you think, ‘He’s going to change the world,’” she added. “That is the essence of Aaron. People are better for having him around.”

As an example of the pair’s bond, Abai interviewed with representatives from Harvard and Stanford in Rodriguez’s classroom, a place that has come to feel like home.

Finding peace

As a first-generation American, Abai once found it difficult to appreciate his Ethiopian culture.

But now, his perspective has completely shifted. Ask anyone, and they’re bound to know — Abai is Ethiopian, and he’s proud of it.

“It made me feel different for the longest time, and that made me feel isolated,” he said. “It was definitely a negative thing for a lot of my life.

“But when I was able to find it to be a positive thing, that not only helped me with just … accepting myself but also accepting others for who they are and what identities they hold,” Abai added. “It’s also just a fun culture. … Our music, our food, our dance, our history. … It’s such a privilege to be a part of such an amazing heritage.”

And beyond just appreciating the country’s rich culture, Abai understands how hard his parents worked to give him the life he has today.

“Just hearing how my parents struggled when they were back home and how different their life was back there has made me so much … more appreciative of the privileges we have here in America and also just in Littleton,” he said.

After attending the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference, the largest diversity conference in Colorado, Abai decided to bring something similar to Chatfield — first, a one-day event followed by a week-long celebration this year.

Abai appreciates people and their differences. And according to Weimer, his work has “brought a breath of freshness about diversity” at Chatfield.

Leaving a mark

Weimer and Rodriguez, both longtime educators, agree that Abai is one of the best. Both mentioned his smile and his infectious personality and his positive energy, which they said would frequently brighten up the halls of their South Jeffco high school.

“He walks through the world making a difference and making it better without even realizing he’s doing it. It’s such a unique gift that he has,” Rodriguez said. “ … In my 22 years (as an educator), I’ve never met a young man like Aaron that has that much depth and breadth and heart.”

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.