If complete strangers offered to change your life, would you trust them?
Could you believe their kindness?
In a sense, this happens when a student is given a scholarship.
But it happened in the most extraordinary way to Dr. Yohannan Abraham. A chance encounter with a Minnesota couple changed the trajectory of his future.
It afforded him a college education—something he had never dreamed of.
Abraham would eventually become a professor in the College of Business and found the International Business Programs at Missouri State. Two of his children would go on to become doctors, a grandson would attend West Point. That is the generation-altering power of an education.
But first, rewind several decades.
A life changed
Abraham grew up in rural India in a loving, Orthodox-Christian home. He lived in a two-room, thatched-roof house. There was no running water.
As a boy, his goal was to be the first in his family to graduate from high school. His parents had an elementary school education.
Abraham graduated from high school at the age of 16. After that, he left his family and moved to Mumbai. Within a year, he was supporting himself and sent money back to his family in their village.
In September 1962, Allen Lee Miller and his wife Doris Mae, a retired couple from Austin, Minnesota, took a trip around the world. They stopped in India at the International Business Office, where Abraham worked, to pick up excursion tickets.
Abraham’s boss suggested he accompany them as a tour guide for the day. He happily agreed. During lunch, Lee Miller asked Abraham, who was 22, if he planned to go to college. Abraham said he considered taking some part-time classes.
Lee responded: “How would you like to go to school in America if we made all the arrangements?”
Naturally, Abraham was suspicious, but he told the couple he would be grateful.
They went back to America and Abraham didn’t know what to think of the experience. Then a month later, hope arrived in the form of a letter.
A letter he still cherishes.
It began “Dear friend” because the Millers couldn’t remember his first name. But that did not matter. They remembered their offer.
They sent him a college application and offered to pay for his journey. Then those two big-hearted strangers ended the letter by saying: “We remain your second Mother and Dad.”
“This statement put to rest all my doubts about the offer and motive behind it,” Abraham said.
He replied and in the next letter, the Millers sent him $1,000 to help pay for his airfare and expenses.
It took a year to wade through all the paperwork and regulations, but in August 1963, he moved to the United States.
Earning degrees, coming to Springfield
Abraham lived with the Millers for two years and earned his associate’s degree from Austin Junior College with a pre-business track. They supported him as if he were their son.
He received a full scholarship to attend Wartburg College. Sadly, while he was there, “Dad Miller” died of complications during surgery.
In 1967, Abraham graduated with a bachelor’s in business administration and economics. Mom Miller was there to witness the event.
Next, Abraham received a scholarship offer and graduate assistantship at Drury University. Abraham lived with his cousin, Thomas Varghese, professor of sociology and economics at then-Southwest Missouri State College, while earning his MBA.
After graduation, he married Tessy, through an arranged marriage, a common practice in India. They have been happily married for more than five decades.
Abraham became internal auditor at Empire Bank. While at Empire, he met the late Dr. Don Calame, who was head of the business department at what was then-Southwest Missouri State College. Through that relationship, Abraham eventually applied for a teaching position at the college.
In fall of 1969, Abraham was hired to teach accounting at MSU’s College of Business.
In 1972, he took a leave of absence to earn his PhD from the University of Oklahoma. Abraham resumed his teaching responsibilities at Missouri State in January 1975—although it would take another year to complete the doctorate.
Dr. Abraham spent 40 years at Missouri State. Not bad for a man who never planned to teach.
Perhaps his biggest contribution was founding COB’s International Business Programs in 1996. He wrote two successful two-year grants from the U.S. Department of Education. These grants helped set up the International Business Programs and enabled 43 students and faculty to travel to Chile, India, Brazil and China.
“It was primarily to benefit faculty members who did not have overseas experience,” he said.
Now, College of Business has extensive partnerships in Asia, Europe, South America, and Australia.
“We recognized it is a very small world,” he said. “The business world itself is not confined to the border of any one country. We are interdependent and need to work in that environment.”
Another big contribution he made is the Abraham-Miller Endowed Scholarship, funded by his family and a few other benefactors. It is named for his biological parents and his second mom and dad.
Abraham said he wanted to give back since he has been given so much. Preference is given to first-generation college students, pursuing human resource management and international management. It is awarded annually to two students and that number is expected to grow in time.
“I am a product of scholarships through and through and wanted to offer that opportunity to somebody in some way,” Dr. Abraham said.
He retired in 2009 as professor and director of International Business Programs.
“Earning a PhD, becoming a full professor, co-authoring a textbook in human resource management with Edwin Flippo — these were all milestones for someone who never dreamed of going to college,” Abraham said. “Reaching these heights were important moments in my life.”