Students from the Institute for East African Councils on Higher Education listen during a workshop. (Hermela Welday)

Matheos Mesfin traveled to the United States in 2007, coming from Ethiopia to reunite with his mother, who had lived here for some time. He enrolled in a D.C. public school, an educational transition that was a real culture shock. It was a school with a metal detector, something he hadn’t encountered in his homeland.

“It was a time where I had to sort of navigate by myself, find my niche, get involved,” he said.

That led to a nomination for a scholarship, which led to Grinnell College, a liberal arts school in Iowa. It was an unfamiliar place. He met a hipster there, he said, a dude who had "said no to shoes." So, that was a shock, too.

“Academically, it was one of the most intense places I’ve ever been,” he said. “It was just full of erudites, full of intellect. So I had a lot of catching up to do.”

All of this is to say that the 25-year-old Mesfin gets it. He knows how it feels to be a young student in an immigrant family, trying to wade through the American higher education system. He knows the challenges. He understands the concerns.

Now, Mesfin is trying to make things a little better for other students. He is founder and executive director of the Institute for East African Councils on Higher Education, a nonprofit that works with high school students of East African heritage who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. The nonprofit — known as IEA Councils — helps students navigate the dizzying admissions process and makes sure they understand what it means to be a college student.

“We jump in at that critical moment and say these are the schools you can consider, these are the benefits of going to this school,” Mesfin said. “This is why we believe you’re worth this institution. You have every credential that they are listing. Why in the world do you not see yourself going — what’s holding you back?”

Among the students the IEA Councils has helped: Bitseat Getaneh, an 18-year-old who came to the United States from Ethiopia in 2016. Just hours after Getaneh arrived in the country, a massive explosion ripped through the Silver Spring apartment building where she was staying, killing seven people. Getaneh suffered burns and a fractured collar bone. She spent weeks in the hospital.

Bitseat Getaneh, whose apartment was destroyed in a fire on her on her very first day in the United States after arriving from Ethiopia. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Getaneh is now college-bound, headed for Bucknell University, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. She has been awarded a scholarship covering tuition for four years.

“I couldn’t imagine the college process without their help,” Getaneh said. “I couldn’t imagine it at all.”

Judy Tsegaye, a freshman at Stanford University, took part in IEA Councils last year, traveling on Saturdays from her family’s home in Woodbridge, Va. A friend told her about the nonprofit.

Tsegaye gained exposure to different types of colleges, including liberal arts schools that she had never heard of. She got help with her writing.

“When I went to visit the school in April, they flew me out, and one of the people who worked for the admissions office wanted to talk to me,” Tsegaye, 18, said. “When we talked, he was saying how much he loved my essay, and how much he’s looking forward to what I’m going to do at Stanford.”

IEA Councils was founded in 2016, and in its first year, the nonprofit served more than a dozen students, kids who went off to schools that included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, according to Mesfin.

“I have never done work quite like this,” said Hermela Welday, who volunteers with IEA Councils. “It’s just the passion the students have, their eagerness to learn, and knowing that giving them a little bit of my time and my energy and my Saturday will change their future.”

The whole operation, Mesfin said, runs on a pretty tight budget. (Some of its money has come from Donald Graham, chairman of Graham Holdings Co. and former Washington Post publisher.) A handful of volunteers chip in their time. Mesfin works as a staff accountant for another nonprofit; helping out these high-schoolers isn't his full-time gig.

“The joy I feel in helping complete strangers, I can’t monetize it, I really can’t,” Mesfin said.

Some of the work is practical: Here’s how to improve your college essay, here are some interview prep tips. Some of it is reassuring nervous parents, who worry about sending sons and daughters away to college. Some of it is reminding these kids there are competitive colleges of all sizes that might want them.

“It’s an incredible void that we’re filling,” Mesfin said. “And it’s a void that really needs to be filled.”

Noah Yared, a D.C. high school student who works with IEA Councils, was born in the United States, and briefly lived in Ethiopia before returning to America. The nonprofit has helped him with time management and with buffing his essays.

“They’re constantly egging you to go beyond what you think that you can do,” Yared, 17, said.

If given the chance, he said he would like to come back and help others kids someday.

“The program gave so much to me,” Yared said. “It’s sort of a way to give back. Hopefully, there’s somebody else who, like me, has potential to go reach high, but all they need is a little bit of guidance.”