Bethlehem’s amazing journey from Ethiopia to GCU
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Bethlehem Schwab’s life has been filled with surprises. But the Grand Canyon University junior just keeps showing that her success is no surprise at all.
It started right when she arrived for her first year on campus. Her father, John, was staying at the GCU Hotel during Welcome Week when he was introduced to the manager, Brett Cortright.
“You’ve got to meet my daughter,” Schwab said, offering few details other than that he had just dropped her off for her first year on campus and she had an interest in the hospitality program.
Imagine Cortright’s surprise a short time later when Bethlehem walked in with her dad.
“They’re different nationalities,” Cortright said. “It caught me a little off guard.”
But there’s so much more to Bethlehem’s remarkable story that can’t be easily seen.
Start with her interesting first name, unusual in the United States but actually common in her native Ethiopia, where parents like to name children after biblical places. Bethlehem’s friends and family call her Beth or Betty for short, but therein lies another surprise – the Ethiopian pronunciation of Betty is BAY-tee.
That also explains why her sister is named Peneal, a place (aka Peniel) named by Jacob in Genesis 32:30. It means “face of God.”
Life’s surprises took a tragic turn for Bethlehem when she was just 4 years old. Her mother died while giving birth to Peneal, and then their father died of malaria two years later. The family’s poverty prevented him from getting proper treatment.
The sisters went to live with an aunt, and Bethlehem helped care for her sister. But she couldn’t be of much help to Peneal when they were moved to an orphanage and separated by age group.
Yet Bethlehem still has pleasant memories of her early childhood.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she said. “It just makes me the person I am today. It is part of the journey.”
That’s where John Schwab and his wife, Kelly, became part of the journey. They had four children of their own but wanted to double that number, so they adopted two from Haiti and then, encouraged by friends who had taken in children from Ethiopia, decided to venture there in 2006 to fill out their dream family.
The timing of it couldn’t have been more surprising. Bethlehem and Peneal hadn’t been in the orphanage that long, and it was common for children to remain there for years, Bethlehem said. They studied English daily while they were there, but their knowledge of their adopted language was minimal when they arrived in the U.S.
“When they picked us up,” Bethlehem recalled, “three of my siblings tried to communicate with us in English and the first thing I learned was, ‘I don’t speak English.’ That’s all I said. But I picked it up really fast. I could speak it and have conversations with people, but reading and writing did not come easily.”
Neither did the new culture.
She had to grow up at a young age in Ethiopia, where “you’re expected to do so much,” she said. In the U.S., by contrast, “I got a lot of things handed to me and I was just like, ‘This is really strange.’”
Equally strange, to her tastes, was the food. Meals in Ethiopia are “like a big red platter – everything is home-cooked,” but the over-abundance of processed foods in America was anything but homey.
“For a long time I didn’t like the food here,” she said. “But as soon as I loved it, I tried everything. I also loved the music.
“Everything looks so different here – the buildings, the people. I didn’t think they were friendly at first. I’d smile and they wouldn’t smile back.”
Her friendliness led her to pursuing a Colangelo College of Business degree in hospitality from GCU, which has two CCOB alumni in her family – Andrew and Clay Schwab. She refers to them as her brothers, just as John and Kelly are dad and mom, whose idea it was to major in hospitality.
“My mom said, ‘Betty, you love talking to people.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it out.’ And now I love this service. I think it’s so fun.”
She’s a natural. Cortright saw it right away when he recruited her to work in a concession stand along with other hospitality students at the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training games in their Maryvale stadium.
“She’s an absolute rock star,” he said. “She’s one of those people that you can see her desire to help people coming from the inside.”
She even was a star when Cortright took staff and student workers from the hotel and Canyon 49 Grill on a team-builder to Topgolf. Bethlehem played basketball, field hockey and lacrosse in high school in Colorado Springs, Colo., and was all-state in field hockey, so she knows how to get in the swing of things even though she has only dabbled in golf.
Cortright felt humbled.
“I’ve been golfing my whole life and she’s a better golfer than me,” he said. “Maybe she just has an ability to learn things better than others.
“She definitely made me and a couple of my other managers take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about the amount of time we’ve spent golfing and think about whether it had been worth it. She hit it far and straight every single time.”
She has been equally on target at Canyon 49, where she is in charge of staffing. That means she interviews and hires every student who will work in the restaurant and already is filling spots for the spring semester.
Yet another surprise: She recently decided to enroll in the ROTC program. It’s not really a stunner if you know her family’s background: John went to West Point. One of her sisters enlisted right out of high school. Andrew and Clay both were in ROTC while at GCU.
And with eight children in the family, she figured that having the government pay for her education would be a big help.
“I did sports throughout high school. I thought, ‘I’m in shape, I can push through it,’” she said – but admits the early morning workouts have been challenging.
It’s just one of many big events in Bethlehem’s life these days, and one of the biggest of all is coming up in December. For the first time since she left 13 years ago, she is going back to Ethiopia to visit aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of her biological family. To prepare, she has been working hard to re-learn Amharic, her native language.
It is the trip of a lifetime and a step back in time, to a place that will seem like a lifetime ago. Because it is.
Boy, are they in for a surprise.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].