Student by day, janitor by night, traveler in life

University janitor Johannse Eshete’s education has been a life-long endeavor.

Dan Miller

Smoking a cigarette and leaning over a thick math book, University janitor and student Johannse Eshete is fully at home in the Purple Onion Cafe in Dinkytown, where he’s become a familiar fixture.

When he is not in class or working 55 hours a week cleaning Amundson Hall and the Purple Onion Cafe, Eshete will likely be found studying and conversing in the smoking section.

At 41 years old, Eshete has worked and studied all over the globe. He has filled the Vatican with chairs for the pope’s speeches, worked on a Siberian gas pipeline and washed dishes in Minneapolis.

Eshete does not shake hands like a teacher. His strong, coarse hands are those of a manual laborer.

His long and interesting story centers on his lifelong pursuit of education, which he began as a young man in Ethiopia.

“Since I was a child, my dream has been to have a Ph.D.,” he said. “Education, to me, has always been important. I feel it should not be for getting a nice car and a necktie. It should not be for material success. Education should be for a moral satisfaction.”

Mixed among piles of books in his one-room Dinkytown apartment lies a diploma from Kharkov National Technical University, in the former Soviet Union, and drafts of the 1993 “20 Million Dollar Project” he worked on for the city of Ames, Iowa.

Eshete, who can speak five languages, has lived in Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Germany, Italy and the United States while working to fund his increasing education. For his entire life, Eshete has worked with his mind and his hands.

With a master in science degree in environmental engineering and a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering, he has worked as a civil engineering inspector in Ames, and has been a substitute math teacher in numerous Minneapolis public schools.

Alongside his nearly constant education, Eshete has found hard work. Since coming to the United States in 1991, he has had experience in his field but has not sought an engineering job for some time. Instead, he has opted to work and study.

He said he has dealt with vocational disappointments and a lack of advanced communication skills necessary in the fast-paced U.S. job market.

Most people who frequent the Dinkytown coffee shop scene know Eshete’s faithful smile and greeting.

“He’s always had a ‘How are you?’ ” said Purple Onion employee Andy VanLanen, who has known Eshete since starting at the coffee shop in 1997.

Hard work, persistence

Eshete came to the United States with the assumption that hard work equals success. Since then, he has dealt with the bitter realities of the American dream.

“It’s very hard,” Eshete said. “I don’t feel bad doing the physical work, but it gets tiring.”

According to his employers and co-workers, Eshete has done well with every job he has undertaken.

“He’s a hard worker, and he’s always willing to help out when we’re shorthanded,” said Walter Johnson, a Facilities Management operations supervisor who has worked with Eshete for three years.

“Whatever he does, he wants to do it the right way,” said Million Woldabzgi, Eshete’s friend and co-worker. “It doesn’t matter how much it costs, how much he has to study or how hard he has to work.”

Woldabzgi, 29, works with Eshete in facilities maintenance as a janitor in Elliot Hall. Like Eshete, he also works full time and takes University classes. He said he always goes to Eshete if he has problems.

“He has a lot of persistence,” Woldabzgi said. “His whole life, he’s been in school.”

Education, expertise

Sipping what he calls a cup of coffee – two shots of espresso in a medium coffee – Eshete likes to reminisce about studying, working and drinking vodka in the former Soviet Union.

“I loved Russia,” Eshete said. “But in Siberia, it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and you only saw the sun six hours a day.”

Eshete grew up in a much warmer climate. He was born into an Orthodox Christian home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He left when he was 19 years old and went to the former Soviet Union on a scholarship to study civil engineering in Moscow, before transferring to Kharkov National Technical University, where he earned his master’s degree in soil engineering.

But Eshete had to earn his way. One of his jobs in the former Soviet Union was working on the construction of a gas pipeline in Siberia that ran into central Europe.

After finishing his degree, he made stops in Germany and Italy. He worked as a janitor in the Vatican and unloaded tomatoes in Naples, Italy.

After coming to the United States, Eshete lived briefly in New York and Iowa before moving to Minneapolis.

In Ames, Eshete was a city engineering inspector and worked for a year and a half on the city’s “20 Million Dollar Project,” which installed underground water systems in new developments. He inspected construction sites and reported to Ames’ chief engineer.

After the project was finished, Eshete moved to Minneapolis. He applied for a similar engineering position for the city of Minneapolis. Out of 50 applicants, he said, he was selected as one of two finalists but did not get the job.

Eshete said he realized the aggressiveness of job hunting in his field and the advanced communication skills he needed.

Transition, weakness

Every weekday at 2 a.m., Eshete finishes cleaning Amundson Hall and makes his way toward the Purple Onion. Not allowing his small, wiry frame much sleep, he is usually in bed by 4 a.m.

Eshete is used to transitional periods. Never marrying, he can take jobs that allow him to study – if he would just take one job.

With diabetes and an ever-aging body, his quest toward a doctorate has been long and slow. But even with a work schedule few University students could undertake, Eshete has shown persistence.

“Sometimes I ask him, ‘Why do you do this?’ ” Woldabzgi said. “Most people tire either their mind or body. Johannse tires his mind and his body.”

Eshete only needs to finish six classes for a computer programming degree from Saint Paul College and his teaching license from the University. When he is finished, he hopes to pursue his doctorate in environmental engineering after taking the graduate record examination.

But he can only take two classes at a time while working more than full time to pay for his tuition and living expenses.

Principled and rigid, Eshete has become set in his ways.

“My weakness is that I don’t pursue things aggressively,” Eshete said. “I like going to school, but I do it in a hard way.”

Eshete’s hard way has worked, and his friends recognize the stamina of his mind and body.

Often sleepy and sore during daylight hours, Eshete tries to focus on his studies at the coffee shop.

But he is willing to withdraw from his equations and light up a cigarette and a conversation.

“I heard on the BBC that a British writer wrote a book saying, in life, you need luck and communication skills,” he explained smiling. “I am a good person, and I have experience, but I just have problems with the luck and communication.”

Halfway done with the cigarette, he puts it out, pulls out a pencil and leans back over his book.