And tuba too? Matti Robi's journey from foster care to college

Mount Tahoma senior, child of Ethiopian immigrants, accepted to Vanderbilt

3/21/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

Matti Robi’s calm exterior belies a steely determination to achieve. The soft-spoken 18-year-old Mount Tahoma senior has a fistful of college acceptance letters--with Vanderbilt topping the list. Heady stuff, given that Matti’s the child of a single immigrant father from Ethiopia, and spent the last few years in foster care.

“I want foster youth in general to advocate for themselves,” she said. “That’s what I’m really passionate about. A lot of times when you’re a kid in the system—and I was lucky, I had family around me—but a lot of times foster youth don’t see that in their lives. And I didn’t want to be another statistic. So I could choose the wrong path in life, or I could choose to become someone that I want to become. I want foster youth to know that your obstacles don’t determine the course of your life. You decide that.”

Born in California, Matti spent her formative years with her father, Bekele Robi, an immigrant from Ethiopia with degrees in engineering and accounting. Her mother had problems and couldn't be a consistent part of Matti's life.

“Basically my Dad raised me by himself,” Matti said. “He was already a senior citizen—he was 51 when he had me. So it was doubly tough for him taking care of a little girl.”

And then things got even tougher.

“He had a stroke when I was in ninth grade, and things started going downhill,” she recalled. “He got better for a brief period of time, but then his health declined during the summer before I started 10th grade. He would be disoriented and didn’t know what he was saying. I knew it was best for me to go with my family, so I told them my dad was sick, and he wasn’t acting right.”

Matti contacted an aunt and uncle who lived nearby in Los Angeles, and they helped her start the painful process of leaving her father so he could receive care and she could continue her life.

“They contacted the police, and the police removed me, and I went to live with (the aunt and uncle) while my father stayed by himself,” she said. “I got in contact with the foster services department in California. From that moment I was a foster child. I still had my family with me, had their love and support, but I was in the system, and I had a social worker.”

Matti acknowledges that she’s been luckier than most; the foster care systems in California and Washington both placed her with relatives rather than total strangers. Nonetheless, she said, dealing with the labyrinth of child welfare agencies in two states gave her experience advocating for herself.

“I wanted to move (to Washington), but that was another whole court process,” Matti said. “I visited here the summer before 11th grade, and I really liked it here, and I thought it might be better for me being with (a different) aunt and uncle here. My aunt and uncle in California, they love me and care about me, but I thought it would be good for me to get away from everything in California and start again in a new place.”

Another reason for the move? Mount Tahoma’s strong band program. Matti plays the tuba, an instrument you don’t just stash under your bed.

“I like band a lot,” she said. “This is my fourth high school, and some of the schools I wasn’t able to play tuba, either because they didn’t have a band program or had a program that wasn’t as strong. Here, the band program is really connected and close; it’s like a family.”

Her tuba playing could possibly open doors for her college career too—Matti recently auditioned at Pacific Lutheran University for the music program.

“They’re in dire need of tubas,” Matti said. “A lot of people don’t like playing the tuba. So they really want me to come there.”

Counselor Anneliese Nobles said she’s seldom seen a transfer student so engaged.

“Before she came up here, before I had any idea who she was at all, I had an e-mail from her that said ‘I’m looking at moving up there,’” Nobles said. “‘I would be at your school, you would be my counselor, here are the classes I’m currently taking, how would they match with courses there?’ This incredibly proactive approach. She decided, wherever it came from, that she needed to get her education, and she learned about the transfer process and found out everything she needed to do.”

Brandon Ervin, director of College & Career Readiness for Tacoma Public Schools, said helping students realize their full potential, including those in difficult circumstances like Matti, inspires his counseling staff.

“As a counselor, the job may range from advising students on meeting graduation requirements to working with students and families in crisis,” Ervin said. “School counselor’s efforts are designed to identify and break down barriers that prevent students--particularly low-income students, first-generation college students, rural students, and students of color--from applying to and enrolling in colleges that are their best academic, social, and financial fit. Our mission is to help all students recognize and make the most of the opportunities they’ve earned.”

Matti credits her unusual and rocky road towards college with teaching her important life lessons, not to mention making school her safe place.

“I had to learn to grow up at a young age,” she said. “I had to see my dad get sick, right when I was starting high school. High school, you’re supposed to have fun and go places. Instead of going places with my friends I had to concentrate on school. I knew if I didn’t do those things I wouldn’t have another option—if I didn’t get my education I wasn’t going to have a life at all."

She’s considering a career in medicine, specifically geriatrics.

“I want to do something helping old people,” she said. “Visiting my dad in the convalescent home, seeing him in that situation with other old people, I just really want to help people like my father.”

 Matti’s waiting to hear from a few more schools—obscure places like Stanford and Yale, for example—but she and Nobles are confident that wherever she goes will be the right choice.

“Where I wind up going, that’s where God wants me to go,” Matti said. “I’m not even stressed about it anymore.”