The week before prom, Fitsum “Efron” Genet is preoccupied with the details of the Egyptian Nights-themed event. The animated 18-year-old is the senior class vice president tasked with planning the milestone.
This is Efron’s chance to be remembered at Lake Highlands High School, he says, and opportunities like that can’t be wasted. He rattles off all the key decisions he helped make, from the venue to the music to a special guest appearance, a local petting zoo’s camel.
Efron could be pegged as a politician in the making, even though he wants to be a doctor. He’s outgoing and charismatic — the type who treats strangers as lifelong friends.
Efron doesn’t introduce himself as Fitsum, his given name. He tells his peers his name is Efron, just like the actor. His father, though, gave him the nickname when he was a baby.
“I like it because it’s one of the good things my dad gave me,” he says.
Efron hasn’t seen his dad since he immigrated from Ethiopia to the United States when he was 9. His mother relocated to the U.S. when Efron was a toddler to ensure her son had better financial and educational opportunities. She worked several jobs to send his family money for necessities and pay for Efron’s private school education, where he learned English.
Without his mom nearby, his father, aunt and a nanny raised him. He and his father bonded during the day, but alcohol consumed his dad’s attention at night.
“My dad was an alcoholic; I remember it very vividly. That’s why at 7 or 8, I made a vow never to drink,” he says.
Efron’s father never moved to the U.S., and he won’t see Efron receive his diploma this June. Efron learned his dad died from a heart attack in March. The news hasn’t registered yet, and Efron says he’s unsure if he’s begun to grieve.
“I’m angry that he died before he saw me succeed,” Efron says.
His father’s death isn’t the only thing he’s had to reconcile. Growing up, his dad told Efron that his mother abandoned them. So when she brought him to the United States at 9, he felt like he was moving to a new country with a woman he knew little about.
Even though he spoke English fluently, he was considered the weird kid in school, he says. He struggled with his mother’s rules and living with his little brother. He felt his dad stopped caring. Then, when he was 12, his aunt died of breast cancer.
“I just didn’t feel like I was loved,” he says.
Navigating between cultures while in mourning was overwhelming, Efron says. He was suicidal as a middle-schooler, but he never mentioned how he was feeling to anyone until he attended a Young Life camp. He found solace in religion and met a mentor, Adrian Neal, who he’s still in contact with today.
“I felt God, and I know trying to end my life wasn’t what I was meant for.”
Now an honor roll student, Efron played football and ran track. He credits football coach, Lonnie Jordan, for increasing his work ethic and confidence. Efron also volunteers at Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Garland and attends Village Church.
He’ll either attend Aurora University in Illinois, West Texas A&M University or A&M Commerce, depending on the financial aid he receives. Efron is paying his college tuition by himself, and he hopes to graduate with little debt so he can eventually afford medical school.
He and his mom don’t argue anymore, and his little brother — albeit annoying, he says — reminds him of himself.
“I love my mom,” he says. “She’s my rock.”
Imani Johnson, one of Efron’s good friends, has watched him not only become more self-assured but also become more responsible.
Any challenge or mistake he views as a lesson, she says.
“If I go through pain, I hope I come out better for it,” he says.