One employee’s dedication and triumph on the road to becoming an engineer
By Brandon Hartman
Engineer Sabawon will always remember the morning in 2009 when, at 17 years old, he jumped on his bicycle and rode to a local convenience store to ask for a job. Halfway there, he hit a bump and fell off his bike, leaving him bleeding and dirty.
Sabawon, along with his mother, father and sister, had recently immigrated from war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan. With only four suitcases of clothing, his family lived with Sabawon’s uncle, sharing a room in a small, Washington, D.C., home.
“I grew up in an area that was in a constant state of war — fights, rockets missing our house by just 30 meters, windows occasionally shattering from nearby impacts,” said Sabawon. “To us, the U.S. was a dreamland. My family is smart, works hard and respects others, so we knew we could accomplish plenty in this land of opportunity.”
Staying the Course
Sabawon knew his family could not wait for him to start earning money, and at the time, he was the only English speaker in his household. Slightly dazed but persistent, he limped into the store; the shocked store manager had him wash up and interview, and Sabawon landed the role, working the cash register from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. To make ends meet, he eventually got a second job working at a grocery store from 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Each week, he had only one day off. On that off-day, he attended classes at Northern Virginia Community College, then rode eight miles on his bike to a local community center where he mentored other teens in coding and web development.
“Looking back, that time was the most challenging and exhausting of my life,” said Sabawon. “As a 17-year-old, you should be applying to colleges, playing sports or spending time with friends and family. But I had to work while somehow finding time to continue my studies.”
“To us, the U.S. was a dreamland. My family is smart, works hard and respects others, so we knew we could accomplish plenty in this land of opportunity.”
— Sabawon, Northrop Grumman Systems Engineer
However, Sabawon had big dreams of becoming a successful engineer. Ever since he was a kid, he was good at problem-solving and had an interest in math and science. He credits his parents — who, for safety reasons, homeschooled him in Afghanistan — for his love of science, technology, engineering and math and his passion for life-long learning.
A Life-Changing Opportunity
After a few years of 17-hour workdays, Sabawon saw his hard work pay off when he got a paid internship at a small software company, swiftly followed by the life-changing opportunity to join Northrop Grumman as a cybersecurity analyst.
“Finally, I was connecting the dots between my life’s path and my career journey,” said Sabawon.
Through Northrop Grumman’s education assistance program, Sabawon earned his master’s degree as a software and systems engineer. Now, after growing up fascinated by space exploration, he supports launches as a team lead and a cyber and systems engineer for advanced ground software capabilities.
Striving and Thriving
On December 7, 2021, Sabawon watched the launch of a mission he supported and marked the flight of a Northrop Grumman ESPAStar satellite. He couldn’t help but think of his journey from cashier to engineer.
“Every day, I wake up thankful because I know my life in Afghanistan would have been much different,” said Sabawon. “The people in that country are so talented and brave, and I’m very proud to be an Afghan-American, but, unfortunately, the Afghan environment and schools are not where they need to be to cultivate the country’s talent. I hope one day that will change.”
Sabawon’s motto now is to dream as big as you can, and then never give up on those dreams.
“We only have one life to live,” said Sabawon. “When you are 70 years old, you should have no regrets about what you’ve made of your life.”
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