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Remembering and honoring the life of undergraduate Henoch Argaw

A motivated self-learner, Argaw found joy by teaching and mentoring others.
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MIT undergraduate Henoch Argaw (1998-2017)
MIT undergraduate Henoch Argaw (1998-2017)

In the 3rd grade, Henoch Argaw began tutoring his fellow students at Southeast Christian Academy Elementary School in Colorado.

“He told me and Sehin [his mother] that he was writing a math instruction book,” recalls Neway Argaw, his father. “By that time, he was already attending 5th grade [level] math and science courses.” Their son continued tutoring all the way through high school and also took up a related pursuit, refereeing and coaching youth soccer for the Colorado Storm and other Colorado soccer clubs. He was also a competitive chess player and played the trumpet since 4th grade.

Mustafa Amjad, a student at University of Pennsylvania who met Argaw when he was attending the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) Jordan program, writes: “He was always willing to help and offer his advice whenever I needed it and I was truly inspired by the breadth of his knowledge.”

Argaw, a second-year MIT student who passed away unexpectedly in late September, inspired countless others during his time at MIT and elsewhere. He was 19 years old. A resident of East Campus, Argaw was pursuing one of the Institute’s newest majors, 6-14 (Computer Science, Economics and Data Science) in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). The major was a perfect fit, as he had been enamored of complex analysis from an early age.

In middle school, Argaw’s proclivity for math and science garnered him a presidential award for education excellence, and he went on to attend and win numerous STEM competitions prior to coming to MIT. “For two consecutive years he was the highest scorer in his middle-school math competition and highest among all 7th and 8th grade students from across his school district,” his father says.

His close friend, Benjamin Farnsworth, writes that he and Argaw formed a bond over being the only two 6th graders in Algebra 1 class — but also notes his broader interests and playful humor: “I remember countless hours playing Mario Hoops on our Nintendo DSs and practicing musical duets. One time, we went to preform 'Ode to Joy' for the school talent show, and we accidentally repeated it at separate times. The result: We both burst out in laughter for a good two minutes, to our embarrassment. Every time we heard 'Ode to Joy' after that, we couldn't help but smile.”

As with mathematics, music and languages came easily to Argaw. Born in Tampere, Finland, he was fluent or near-fluent in Amharic, Arabic, Mandarin and English. Argaw shared on a personal profile page that he had “learned a substantial amount of Arabic … after starting with barely any knowledge of the language” during an internship this past summer at liwwa, Inc., a peer-to-peer lending company in Amman, Jordan. Ahmed Moor, co-founder and CEO of the firm writes, He had an easy and generous way of grinning at you; it always brightened my day. I'm grateful for the short time I had with him. The pain of his loss goes deep, but the joy of having known him goes deeper.”

Argaw’s ability to weave together his interests was impressive, as demonstrated in 2013 when he designed and developed a mobile app for Chinese language flashcards. To do so, all he had to do was master programming from scratch. Likewise, he applied his mathematical gifts to economic issues, first as a summer E2 (Engineering Experience at MIT) participant, where he focused on trading, optimization, and portfolio management; and later as an undergraduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative, creating an open-source solution for private cryptocurrency transactions. His most recent project included developing an artificial poker player/robot that won him and his partner $500 in a competition with more than 40 other competitors.

Beyond academics, he belonged to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, served as an officer for the MIT Club Sports Council, treasurer of the MIT Ethiopian-Eritrean Student Association (MIT-EESA), and participated in numerous campus activities, including the MIT Taekwondo Club, the Bitcoin Club, and the Skydiving Club. His many interests were a reflection of his multifaceted personality, as underscored by a eulogy given by Argaw’s cousin: “Henoch was more than just his academic achievements… more than his comprehensive abilities and it should be the last thing to define him. … I’m not going to miss Henoch the student, I am going to miss Henoch the human being.”

Moreover, his sister Peniel adds, “Henoch had many more attributes than just being smart, he had a genuine care and kindness for others. Whether he had a huge assignment due the next day or not, Henoch would always be there for the people he loved. He knew the true meaning of putting others before himself, which continues to inspire me to this day.”

Argaw’s mother calls him her “trophy,” celebrating his generosity, his firm ethical principles, such as always standing for the truth, and his dedication to reading the Bible. “As many said, Henoch was very smart but what surprised me was how he could teach himself anything from scratch, from tying a cravat to day-to-day things like cooking to sophisticated things like programming and stock analysis.” Moreover, rather than complaining about uncomfortable situations, she adds, he always made the best use of his circumstances. “He had so many questions still unanswered. I know he will get all the answers in Heaven.”

On his LinkedIn profile, Argaw described himself and his hopes as both practical and philosophical, writing: “Since a very young age software, computers, and the internet have been critically important to me as a clear display of how humanity can shape the world around it to pursue its desire and its higher purpose. … I would like to further my studies in artificial intelligence and also work to produce a product in AI that will allow people to walk further in their journey — discovering more than anyone prior had imagined.”

A campus memorial service will be held on Saturday, Nov. 4 from 4 to 5 p.m. in the MIT Chapel.

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