Philmon Haile has a great future ahead of him, but he needed help seeing his potential. Haile will enter the University of Washington in January with a lot of education behind him already, some of it in China. OneWorld Now! provided a big part of the boost he needed to get started.

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Philmon Haile has a great future ahead of him, I’m sure, but he needed help seeing his potential.

Haile will be entering the University of Washington in January with a lot of education behind him already, some of it in China.

OneWorld Now! (OWN) provided a big part of the boost he needed to get started. Monday, I wrote about the Seattle-based organization becoming a key player in the Obama administration’s initiative to send 100,000 American students to study in China.

OWN has been sending students to study in China for nine years, and Haile is one of them.

OWN saw potential in him, but it took some persistence to tease it out. Instructors remember him showing up late, sometimes leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed.

I suppose they could have booted him out, but instead they tried to figure out what was going on in his head, and to give him a reason to excel. That’s what they do with all the young people they bring into the program.

The program is aimed at what they call underserved students. The majority are from low-income families, and most are people of color.

Almost all of them, 99 percent, go on to college after the program.

Haile came to the United States from Eritrea with his family when he was 4 years old. He signed up with OWN while a sophomore at Garfield High School, which he said looked like a version of the United Nations.

Instructors worked with him after school, and he learned Mandarin Chinese, one of two languages OWN is built around. The other is Arabic.

OWN raises money to send students to spend time either in China or in an Arabic country. That gives students a goal to aim for, which gives more meaning to their classroom work.

At OWN’s luncheon Tuesday, Haile, 20, talked about the path it opened for him.

When Haile was 16, Congressman Jim McDermott, a supporter of OWN, nominated Haile to be a page in the House of Representatives. Haile said it was an inspiring experience, and empowering too, because he saw that the people in Congress are “just like us. Just people like us.”

Haile spent the 2008-09 school year in a Chinese high school in northeastern China. He said school was six days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days.

He came back wanting more.

Haile attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania for a year. His language skills were ahead of the courses offered, so he crafted an independent-study program for Chinese, and he also got a grant to work in a Chinese village with people who had Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy).

After his freshman year, Haile was awarded a Confucius Institute scholarship to study at a university in Harbin, China, for a year.

OWN emphasizes transformation and nurturing leadership.

Kristin Hayden, who started OWN, recounted her experience as a 15-year-old living in South Africa as a Rotary International exchange student. She said it shifted her life trajectory. Suddenly the world made sense, the need to study and learn made sense.

Hayden said one in three jobs in Washington state relies on international trade.

Even so, we are not preparing enough students to engage with parts of the world that are strategically important. Programs like OWN can fill part of the gap, but there shouldn’t be a gap in the first place.

And it should go without saying that there shouldn’t be a gap in preparing all of our students to achieve to their potential.

It was good to see Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn at the event supporting OWN’s work and its new role in the Obama administration’s 100,000 Strong Initiative.

I do think Haile has a great future and that the country will have a better future if we take better advantage of our underserved talent.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.