By GREG PARLIER
LEDGER MEDIA GROUP CORRESPONDENT
WINTER HAVEN | If you don’t hit the turbo button, you don’t stand much of a chance in football video games, and Mawi Asgedom says you won’t get much out of life either.
The Ethiopian refugee turned author and motivational speaker, who said he was a former doormat in virtual pigskin games with his brother, shared his story with students and faculty at All Saints’ Academy last week.
Asgedom, 36, arrived in the United States when he was 7. He struggled to adjust to life here, but hit his stride in high school and eventually graduated from Harvard, published his first book at 23, and now develops curriculum and travels around the country motivating stu-dents.
Head of School Carolyn Baldwin said she was thrilled to have him return eight years after Asgedom first spoke at the school.
“He’s an absolutely awesome human being and he teaches people how to be more human and how to really put their best thinking into action,” she said.
Asgedom appeared as part of the school’s distinguished speaker series, sponsored by the school’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking.
Devang Patel, project manager of Asgedom’s Florida Virtual School course, funded Asgedom’s visit this time around, including paying for student copies of Asgedom’s book, “Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard.”
In his speech, Asgedom, wearing his trademark Ethiopian shirt, focused on the importance of embracing the ways you are unique, such as his own cultural differences, and including others who are different in your life.
“I like that he said it’s OK to be different, and how it’s not weird to have different cultures and stuff and to embrace it and just go for it,” said ninth-grader Alexandra Canto. “You’re unique, everyone likes it.”
Asgedom said he works hard to make sure the kids are motivated to put his words into action in their own lives.
Throughout his speech, he reminds students that if he runs into them at the airport, and they tell him how they took action after hearing him talk, he’ll buy them a sandwich.
“Human beings in my opinion aren’t good at applying messages, they’re good at hearing messages, which is why, as speakers, we need to have devices to increase the application rate of our messages,” he said. “That’s why I spend time at the beginning asking what they’re going to do.”
Asgedom, who says he was shy in middle school, got a unique start in public speaking. In his first year at Harvard, attending a church service with a friend, he was talked into speaking to the kids when the youth pastor did not show.
“I went in to the bathroom got some toilet paper and sketched out the speech real quick,” he said. “That’s still a strategy I use when I have to come up with a speech really quick; no one bothers you in a toilet stall.”
After that, the history major knew speaking was something he liked doing. He entered and won a contest to speak at Harvard graduation in front of 30,000 people, and was formally trained in public speaking as a reward for winning the contest. He never looked back.
After touring extensively, visiting 150 schools a year, speaking to 1 million students in 45 states, Asgedom has scaled it back, visiting only 30 to 40 schools a year now.
He’s most famous for his book, “Of Beetles and Angels,” which is the first published memoir of an African refugee’s transition to the United States. But he also is involved in curriculum, creating a leadership course with Florida Virtual School.
What impacted All Saints’ students most, though, was his encouragement to find that turbo button.
“I need a turbo button. That related to me because I’m going to start stepping up and doing stuff,” said seventh-grader JT Meade.
And if they run into Asgemon at the airport, they’ll be prepared to tell him why they deserve a sandwich.