Supported by Her Family and Hollins’ International Community, Hildana Abebe ’25 Pursues a Career Helping Children with Autism

Supported by Her Family and Hollins’ International Community, Hildana Abebe ’25 Pursues a Career Helping Children with Autism

Academics, Internships, Sciences, Study Abroad, Testimonials

December 11, 2023

Supported by Her Family and Hollins’ International Community, Hildana Abebe ’25 Pursues a Career Helping Children with Autism Hildana Abebe '25

Growing up in Ethiopia, Hildana Abebe ’25 was captivated by watching American movies. She was so enthralled that she began nurturing a dream of furthering her education at a college or university in the United States. But she knew she faced an uphill climb to make her wish come true.

“My mom and dad were very supportive, and they encouraged me in every way they could,” she says. “They wanted that opportunity for me. But they were concerned about our ability to pay for college, so I knew it would be difficult.”

Then, Hildana’s father received a job offer that suddenly made her college aspirations attainable. However, it would also involve considerable sacrifice for her and her family. “My dad moved to Australia for work training, and he said, ‘If you want to go to college, go for it. But I will have to stay here.’ I was very sad because I am really close to my dad. But they wanted that opportunity for me. I was so grateful.”

Hildana learned about Hollins through the internet and was impressed with how the Office of Admission understood her circumstances and worked closely with her through the myriad of challenges that she encountered during the application process. “Hollins was very accommodating when it came to giving me extensions”.

Hollins’ small class sizes and experiential learning opportunities were major draws for Hildana. “I prefer being in a classroom where I can interact and have a relationship with my professors instead of going to a big school and not having that at all. And even though attending Hollins is a study abroad experience for me already, when I found out I would have the chance to study in another country as well, it was very convincing.”

When Hildana came to Hollins, she recalls that she suffered a serious case of homesickness. She had never flown before traveling from Ethiopia to Virginia, and in fact she had never spent a night away from home. “I didn’t feel good, and I wasn’t eating – everything was bland in taste,” she explains. After a week, she was ready to return home, but she says her father’s reinforcement remained steadfast. “He told me, “‘You can’t stop.’”

Hildana credits her faith in God and the friendships she quickly developed with her fellow international students for ensuring a smooth transition from that point forward. “I wasn’t alone, and the other new international students were facing the same challenges as me. The international students in our upper classes became the support system I really needed. Now, I’m mentoring new international students.”

Attending college in relatively close proximity to her aunt, who lives in Maryland, has also been a source of comfort. “Every chance I get, I visit. She looks like my mom, so I feel like I’m at home.”

As a high school sophomore, Hildana volunteered to work with children with autism. The experience, she says, gave her a profound sense of joy that for her, few other things in life can equal. “I got very attached to the kids, and I felt I was making a difference. With autism, it’s the little things that you celebrate, and being able to help someone live or do other things independently is so special. I decided that this is what I want to do in my career.”

Hildana is majoring in psychology with a concentration in clinical and counseling skills, which she says has offered her “a deep dive” into autism and other disorders. At the same time, she is continuing to work with children with autism in the Roanoke area in order to build her skills and knowledge. She plans to go on to graduate school to study Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a therapy that has proven to be helpful to those on the autism spectrum.

“Tailored to individual needs, ABA is delivered in a variety of settings, including school, home, clinic, and other community settings,” reports Psychology Today. “The goal of treatment is to help children function as independently and successfully as possible. Research shows that consistent ABA can significantly improve behaviors and skills and decrease the need for special services.”

Achieving the milestone that she set for herself when she enrolled at Hollins, Hildana will spend Spring Term studying abroad in the UK. In addition to taking classes to fulfill her minor in communication studies, she will participate in a semester-long internship with an institution that she says “adopts a multidisciplinary approach to fill the gaps of existing mental health services by combining knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, health science, emotional intelligence, and Western medicine. My roles may involve supporting physical and mental health and well-being workshops that are delivered to a wide range of audiences including young people, older adults, immigrants, and refugees.”

Hildana believes she will learn how to improve her own physical and mental health through this internship. “I will also have opportunities to attend a wide range of work-related free trainings that are beneficial for long-term professional development, and get experience with project management, marketing, advertising, and more.”

 As a result of what she accomplished in building her self-confidence after her arrival at Hollins, Hildana says she’s ready for this new adventure. “It’s scary and it’s challenging, but it’s also exciting. So, why not? I don’t want to shy away from it.”

While she isn’t sure yet whether or not she will take a gap year after graduating from Hollins to gain further hands-on experience in working with children with autism, Hildana is hopeful she will be able to reunite with her entire family. Her father, whom she has not seen in five years, is finalizing the process of becoming a resident of Australia. Once his status becomes official, he plans to move Hildana’s mother and younger brother from Ethiopia. Hildana’s goal now is to pursue graduate school in Australia and start her career there.

“Eventually,” she says, “I will join them.”