When Desta Fisseha was growing up in Ethiopia her grandmother told her that education was the path to independence and a better life. That meant sacrifices along the way, like wearing her hair chopped short and making herself plain so boys wouldn't call and interrupt her studies.
Fisseha brought versions of these rules to the raising of her children. "I didn't allow sleepovers or watching TV," she said. "And there was no dating until they finished high school."
Now, based on their academic and personal achievements, Fasika and Tinsay Woreta, her identical twin daughters, have won graduate-study scholarships worth $400,000.
It was the rules, they say, that made all the difference.
At 22, both women are overachievers extraordinaire. They've volunteered at hospitals throughout Maryland; earned straight As (except for Tinsay's one haunting B) at the University of Maryland, College Park, where they're about to graduate with biochemistry degrees; done clinical research on HIV and AIDS in Africa; and managed to grow up approachable and well-adjusted - not to mention with strong desires to serve others.
Instead of lauding themselves for their laurels, they praise their parents.
Their father, Ambachew Woreta, a doctor of internal medicine with philosophical tendencies, owns a clinic in Baltimore, where he lets patients slide on payments if they don't have the money. The twins say they strive to copy his humanitarian ways, and they've inherited their mother's reverence for learning.
Fisseha, a nurse at Bon Secours hospital in Baltimore, and her husband made many of their major decisions based on schooling opportunities - including the one to move the family from Ethiopia to America in 1981 and then to Ellicott City four years later so their children could attend school in the well-regarded Howard County system.
"Since we were small, it's been school, school, school," said Tinsay, who shares a dorm room with her sister. "But we've been able to choose our own careers. Our parents just gave us the foundation."
The professions they've chosen fall right in line with their upbringing: They want to be doctors and serve in poverty-stricken areas in the United States and abroad, including their family's homeland. To that end, each will start at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the fall, following the path of their 24-year-old sister, Hiwot, who is studying medicine at Duke University. (Their brother Daniel Woreta, 31, is an electrical engineer for NASA.)
It's not easy raising a family of go-getters, though. The Woreta parents have had to be tough on their kids - and themselves.
They've had to work 12-hour days and forgo little luxuries so they can afford their children's schooling. As the twins got closer to graduate school, their parents became increasingly worried. There just wasn't enough time in the day to work any more.
"I'm already paying $45,000 for Hiwot at Duke," said Ambachew Woreta, 59. "Where would I get the money [for Tinsay and Fasika]?"
The scholarships, he said, came in the nick of time. The only other real option was for the twins to borrow the money and laden themselves with debt.
Johns Hopkins charges $28,500 per year in tuition (the same as Duke), but living expenses, fees and books bring the total to about $50,000, which happens to be the maximum per-year allotment of the new Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholarships that Tinsay and Fasika, along with 48 others in various disciplines, won.
"A kid goes into med school and comes out with $150,000 worth of loans," said Matthew Quinn, the foundation's executive director. "They're not thinking about public service because they've got such a high debt. They're thinking about going into more profitable lines of medicine. [These scholarships] will allow them to do some general public service and work for others in a way that might really respond to the wishes of their hearts."
And it will give their parents a much deserved break, Fasika said: "They've worked their entire lives just to educate us. This is really a gift."