NOVA’s Jonatan Solomon Gebremichael won a Gold Medal at the 2023 SkillsUSA Leadership and Skills Conference in Atlanta on June 23.
Gebremichael triumphed in the category of Internet of Things: Smart Homes, a three-day intense hands-on event where he was required to install a smart TV, smart thermostat, antennae, and more items into a makeshift room.
See related story: NOVA Wins Gold, Silver, and Bronze at SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference!
We spoke to Jonatan the week after his big win and he has a great story to tell, from overcoming extreme adversity to being a SkillsUSA champion.
How did it feel to win Gold at the national level?
It felt amazing. It was something I did not imagine that I’d win. Winning States was one thing, but winning Nationals kind of blew my mind.
I worked so hard, not just because I wanted to win, but because I truly enjoy what I do. Being encapsulated in my work and my love and appreciation for STEM and engineering led me to that moment. I’ve been to multiple hackathons and engineering competitions with my friends at the Northern Virginia Community College Society of Physics Students and engineering club and we’ve competed at a NASA hackathon physics conference. I’ve won second place, I’ve won third place, but nothing this big and nationally. And for that I am so, so happy.
When I went on that stage at Nationals and they called my name out, I could not believe it – I placed as a finalist. When they called third place for someone else, I was like, “oh my God, I won second place.” And then they called second place and it was the other person, my heart just dropped because I knew I was first! At that moment I realized, I am worth it. My work has been acknowledged.
What obstacles have you overcome while building your skills?
I come from poverty. I would never wish the kind of struggles I’ve had on another person. I came here alone, 14 years old, and then my mom followed me, and then my sister followed me because we were fleeing Ethiopia, without money, drinking sparkling water so the hunger would disappear so we can sleep. We lived in a basement, renting from somebody else’s house. And I had to learn English.
It is difficult to be the parent of my mother, to be the parent of my sister, to be the breadwinner of a household, at the same time trying to reach my goals. Who am I supposed to turn to to reach these goals? I know I will achieve greatness, people told me this starting from when I built an electric sharpener out of a broken computer fan in the villages of Ethiopia when I was a kid. But my experience getting to where I am has been very hard.
What does greatness mean to you?
To have opportunities. To be significant. To be needed. To have purpose. And I will be ready at the door for opportunities because it’s stuck in my fingernails.
Earlier on, no matter how much I tried, no matter how much passion and tenacity I showed, I could never keep up with the workload. It’s not my not understanding of the subject but the struggles of being a Northern Virginia Community College student when I also have to feed my family. Even with previous accomplishments, trying to be recognized for my ability, I lost my mind when people told me, “Jonatan, you’re going to be great someday,” just for them to turn around and say my grades didn’t reflect that, it made me mad. I would hide my identity. I would hide all the problems because I didn’t want to be treated differently. I had a goal in mind to provide for the world – problem solving is the core part of who I am – helping people with kindness and care. And the SkillsUSA win was insanely great because of that.
What does the win mean to you personally?
It really hit close to home because of the adversity I am from. It gives me the opportunity to be great, to imagine growing in this field. I am not a person who is afraid of failure. I am an inventor and my purpose is way bigger than me. I joined the Society of Physics Students when I’m not even a physics major. But allowing myself to be around people that have the same purpose and passion is so wonderful to me. And that has helped me grow and learn.
Because of my immigration status and the adversity I’ve come through, showing my skills and being recognized was something that really impacted me for the first time when I was standing on that national stage.
I care about my purpose. I don’t care about money, power, or fame. I have a goal in mind and I will not stop that I get there and it is finally starting to pay off. NOVA gave me a chance to go to college when all other colleges declined me, it let me be part of a community of people who are also passionate in their field, learning and growing while having fun at the same time. This is when learning happens, not only in the classroom but through conversations and projects and work and just hanging out with your fellow classmates who are passionate about what they do.
I am also so thankful for SkillsUSA because it gave me the opportunity to show my knowledge outside the realms of traditional education. SkillsUSA and NOVA provided me with a chance to be great.
How have you achieved your goals?
Preparation and loving what you do. No matter how bad things are, no matter how much I’m failing, no matter how much I’m struggling, I’m not giving up or letting go of my identity. My preparation was also being surrounded by people also wanting to do this, stuff like this, for fun, regardless of winning or losing.
How will this award impact your future and how will you help others?
NOVA has brought me to the forefront of my dreams. When I try to get a job, I’m able to prove myself now. Hopefully I’ll make enough money to create a learning center, but more importantly, I’ll create a scholarship for students like me that never got the support. The kid who is smart and loves what he does, but just can’t make it happen because of this trials and tribulations. I want to be there for that kid, because I went through it man. I’ll help them out. I can’t wait to help these people, because I know the kind of potential that we can give to the world – future leaders that would otherwise have been abstracted away by the society we live in.
What advice you have for other students?
Don’t let your struggles define your potential, your ability, and your identity. Do what you love. It’s so easy for great minds to disappear. If you’re are a great thinker, just stand at the door of opportunity because no matter how twisty the roads, no matter how many dead-ends, your passion and love for what you do will get you to the finish line. Places like Northern Virginia Community College specialize in these opportunities.
Jonatan with Chelle Travis, National Executive Director of SkillsUSA, after his gold medal win
Jonathan’s sister, Maddie Gebremichael, also won the bronze medal in Engineering Technology and Design, proving that vision, hard work and skill run in the family. She reflected “Thrilled and grateful to have won the bronze medal in Engineering Technology and Design at the SkillsUSA Nationals as part of the NOVA Nightwaks team! A huge thank you to Northern Virginia Community College and NOVA foundation for their incredible support and opportunities. It’s an honor to be a part of a vibrant community that truly cares about opening paths for student success.”
You can read more about NOVA’s other medal winners here.