Aster Yilma: The Major Ketema Melka Scholarship Fund and Her Quest to Educate the Youth

by Tseday Alehegn

Aster Yilma has always been an individual who likes to 'push the envelope'-someone who questions the status quo and believes it is right to ask why. She loves to seek her own answers. "You can't say no to me. I'll prove you wrong" she tells us as we go through an extraordinary list of her professional and charitable accomplishments. But today we focus on her current ambitious project: The Major Ketema Melka Scholarship Fund, and her love of giving.

Along with her husband, Paul Domingue, and their 19-year old son, Nathan, Aster funds and runs the scholarship project named after her late stepfather. "My stepfather believed in education and he absolutely loved children," she says. "I have always longed to commemorate him." Paul adds, "My wife is one of those obnoxious and annoying people who is always trying to solve somebody else's problem. You can't imagine how many times my son, Nathan, and I have been drrrrraaaaaged into all kinds of projects. In the beginning, we would roll our eyes and say, "Here we go again". Nowadays, though, giving back to our community has become part of our lives because we get a real sense of satisfaction from it. So, when my wife presented the idea of the MAJOR KETEMA MELKA Scholarship, I was all for it. What better way is there to honor a great country and a great man, and be of service to others all at the same time?

Still only in their first year of running the scholarship program, Aster and her family have been providing the funds to educate sixty-eight of the top Kokebe Tsibah, Aster's alma mater, high school students in Ethiopia, aiding them to continue two more years of prep school. Next year they plan to help a hundred students. In addition, they have pledged to give an annual scholarship of $1000 to one of the honorees of S.E.E.D. (Society of Ethiopians Established in Diaspora) based in Washington DC area. "I've learned that much can be done with very little," Paul says. "We're by no means affluent, we are not financially equipped to set up a meaningful scholarship program in the U.S. However, in Ethiopia, we are able to do quite a bit with what we have."

The idea of setting up a scholarship fund first entered Aster's mind when her son Nathan received a generous financial assistance from an attorney named David Mandelbaum. Mr. Mandelbaum's gift allowed Nathan to attend his first choice for college - Princeton University. Nathan's family wrote a thank you letter to Mr. Mandelbaum who then sent a copy of it to the president of the Ivy League school. In the letter Aster and her family expressed their gratitude and shared their decision to continue the legacy of giving by providing scholarships to students in Ethiopia. In a response letter to Mr. Mandelbaum, Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman wrote: "To know that the ripple effect you began...have now reached students in Ethiopia must be truly gratifying." Nathan is currently an undergraduate in the engineering program. He has regularly given 10% of his limited income to charity since he was a small boy. "Giving has motivated me to give more," Nathan states. "When I first started tithing it was my mother's prompting, not mine. Eventually, when I saw how it affected people and how it made me feel, I learned its importance."

Aster's husband, Paul, shares with us his motivation and says, "As far as my personal motivation goes, it comes from Aster. Her love of giving is infectious." When commencing this project Paul admits, "I thought of so many things that could and would go wrong. Aster, on the other hand, believes that anything is possible and that anyone can make a difference. When she finds a closed door, she will climb through a window. So I learned from her to have a strong vision and determination." Aster reminds us that "we all have gifts. There is no one in the world, I mean NO ONE, who does not have a gift. Some have money, some have skills, and some have a good heart - that's a gift."

Asked what the biggest challenge and the biggest reward has been in working on this project, Aster replied, "The biggest challenge is dealing with bureaucracy to set up the scholarship fund. For starters, we were told we couldn't establish a scholarship in an individual's name. Finding donors was another issue, but these are all little things in comparison to the passion I have for the project." Even though most people wait for fame and money before they establish their own charities, Aster's family has shown us how each of us can be ready to contribute on our own terms. The biggest reward, she tells us, is "the pleasure you get from giving. Nothing else. Just the pleasure. To see a mother who approaches you with thanks because you have helped to educate her child - the first in the family to afford an education." At the same time Aster and Paul believe they are setting a good example for their son who plans to continue the legacy his parents started.

By working on the Major Ketema Melka Scholarship Fund Aster Yilma continues to set very high standards and constantly aims to raise the bar. Her advice to other parents is "to look for their children's talents and to expect the very best." "This does not mean pressure your child," she clarifies, "but rather identify their strengths and nurture it." She believes strongly in teaching by example and hopes to instill pride in the youth through her charity work. "This is a challenge I put to the youth," she says, "read, travel, read, research Ethiopia, read.. read.. read. I want them to know that they come from a beautiful background. Students of Ethiopian ancestry can and should contribute to help their counterparts at home."

A special aspect of the Major Ketema Melka Scholarship Fund will be a collaborative project between students at Newark Academy Prep School in New Jersey and students in Ethiopia. Through the scholarship fund, young students in New Jersey will be able to participate in community service projects and raise funds to sponsor children in Ethiopia. "In essence, a kid will be paying tuition for another kid," Aster tells us, "and this kind of program raises awareness. The children in Ethiopia are as smart as kids anywhere else. They simply need the opportunity to shine. Educating 68 students is a drop in the bucket for a country that has many more in need of financial assistance, but out of those 68 you don't know which one of those children will be the greatest heart surgeon, or the one to find the cure for AIDS."

Nathan adds to his mom's outlook by saying, "If you do well in school and constantly challenge yourself, opportunities will present themselves to you. This scholarship is a perfect example of that opportunity." "Be a productive member of society. Don't settle into a mentality of apathy," he reminds us.

Paul Domingue's message to the youth is "to take pride in their Ethiopian roots." "I would like them to look beyond the constant barrage of images of famine and poverty and see the country that is a symbol of freedom to black people all over the world," he tells us. He concludes by asserting his belief that "Ethiopia can be restored to its old glory" and he challenges the youth to play a role in the restoration. Aster, Paul, and Nathan all believe that education is the key.

There is one more thing that makes the Major Ketema Melka Scholarship Fund a highly inspirational and uplifting program. Each student supported by the fund signs a special pledge affirming that they are the future and that they will work equally hard to pass on the legacy of giving so that others may get the opportunity to learn. Upon graduation they must strive to pay tuition for two other students, but have no legal obligation. "This is simply a pledge to instill in them a sense of obligation to their brothers and sisters left behind," Aster says. "If there is no Ethiopia, there are no Ethiopians. We have to educate each other whether we reside in Ethiopia or abroad." Currently, Aster is working on getting a non-profit status for the scholarship fund. It is our desire to see her achievement grow to help thousands of bright students and our hope that the legacy is continued indefinitely.

Aster holds an associate degree in TV production from Graham Junior College and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Boston State College. She also has obtained an LVA certificate and a New Jersey Real Estate License.

For information regarding the Major Ketema Melka Scholarship Fund, please you're your email inquiries to

Aster with her husband Paul and her son Nathan

Major Ketema Melka, Aster's Stepfather

Paul, Nathan, and Aster in Ethiopia