||ESAi: New Generation of Student Leaders
by Hager Berhe
A perspective from an ESAi member
Imagine a bank of knowledge
of brilliant ideas. As an Ethiopian student you wish to exchange
your thoughts, reach out to others and to be reached; but you
know that the other students are scattered everywhere and you
have no viable connection amongst each other. Then you dream of
a unified house, an umbrella that provides a comforting shade,
a place of belonging, and a strong spirit that ties all Ethiopian
students together. What if Ethiopian students were able to gather
annually, express their voices, tackle and discuss every day concerns?
In the summer of 1999, a student
named Wubeshet Mehari at Marymount University founded the Ethiopian
Student Association international (ESAi). He began his mission
by contacting and conversing with different Ethiopian Student
Associations/Unions in the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia
areas and shared his idea of building a bridge between different
groups in order to find strength through united goals. His mission
included opening communication channels, creating grounded connections,
and carrying out joint projects in order to implement a strong
network of Ethiopian students. He also created a website
and a mailing list to expand the availability of information to
Nahom Beyene, the former president
of ESAi found out about the organization when he was searching
the Internet. Nahom explains, "I was searching specifically
for Ethiopian student organizations, because I wanted to find
out what other Ethiopian students were doing". His three
main reasons for the search included: lack of networking within
the Ethiopian community; a desire to increase cultural pride and
showcase academic excellence among Ethiopian youth; and a need
to improve the image of Ethiopia and Ethiopian communities at
an international level.
Reading ESAi's mission statement, Nahom became convinced
that working with this organization would enable him to achieve
the goals of his vision.
As Ethiopian students, the curriculum
we study in America may prepare us for better careers, but it
does not teach us much about our histories nor our identities.
It takes self-motivation and dedication to learn about who we
are and the current issues that concern our communities both in
the Motherland and in the Diaspora. Through ESAi we have the opportunity
to create and implement a foundation that serves our academic,
professional, and socio-cultural interests. This is where ESAi
becomes a unique tool for advancing selfknowledge. According to
its constitution, ESAi has five cornerstones:
1.) To research ways that Ethiopian
Students can give aid to Ethiopia and their communities.
2.) To help improve the academic performance and create opportunities
of Ethiopian students.
3.) To provide a comforting community of Ethiopian peers that
they can sympathize with and support one another.
4.) To develop skills such as
leadership organization, communication, public speech, creativity,
5.) To serve as a clearinghouse
of information on contacts and resources pertaining to Ethiopian
With the above goals in mind,
ESAi held a major organizational meeting around March 2000 in
the Washington D.C. metro area. This gathering certified that
the seed of ESAi was planted utilizing the collective effort of
students. Since its inception, ESAi has established two permanent
traditions: the annual summit and the officers' election
The annual summit takes place
at rotating host locations each year and allows students to meet
and share social, cultural, and educational growth. The first
summit was held on March 31, 2001 at Virginia Commonwealth University.
This conference called for the participation of different Ethiopian
Union branches located around the nation to be present in the
effort to introduce ESAi to the Ethiopian community. The Second
annual summit was held from March 22-24, 2002 in Atlanta at Georgia
State University. This time, ESAi's name
was already familiar to many of the Ethiopian students and professionals,
which helped in generating a turnout of more than 400 attendees.
Some students represented the Bay Area schools and were impressed
by the overall organization of the event. Tsehaye Zemenfes, a
student at UC Berkeley remembers, "It felt like a
true family gathering as opposed to a conference." Even those
of us who did not attend the event got to share the spirit of
the gathering by just hearing about it, and thus we hoped that
one day ESAi summit would be hosted by the Bay Area. Surprisingly,
our hope became reality sooner than we expected.
The Bay Areas ESAi Summit
Planning Committee in Action:
We had no idea that the Bay Area Ethiopian Student Association/Union's
would be selected, by the unanimous decision of the ESAi executive
board to host the Third annual ESAi summit in 2003. We gathered
many individuals of great intellect, passion, and commitment to
our newly formed summit planning committee. Families, friends,
and community members were welcomed to help out and invited to
share the special day. Therefore, sincere appreciation is to be
extended to the summit planning committee from Stanford, UC Berkeley,
and San Jose State University for their collective hard work for
organizing different workshops like Dream-work, Brain Drain, CLEA
presentation, and Imagine this, as well as food, entertainment,
and most of all for teaching everyone the meaning of teamwork
I had the opportunity to assist
with the 'Brain Drain'; workshop. "Brain Drain is
the outflow of skilled individuals from the developing countries
to the Western Europe and North America."(1) Ethiopia has a
major problem with this issue. In the year 2000, the Academic
Vice President of Addis Ababa University's (AAU) annual report
showed that: "Out of the 600 AAU academic staff who were
sent abroad during the previous 20 years for further studies,
only 200 had returned. The AAU
department of mathematics alone lost 17 of its staff. They all
have PhDs. and they all currently teach in American universities."
(2) This loss of human capital is very costly to institutions like
AAU and to the country's development as a whole. In the 'Brain
Drain' workshop, we discussed what should be done to help
solve this particular problem at the national and local levels.
The main points that were raised were as follows:
1. The government of Ethiopia should: create necessary political,
social, and economic conditions in the country that would serve
as incentive to curb the Brain Drain and attract much-needed investment
and promote networking and collaboration between experts in the
country and those in the Diaspora.
2. Individuals making collective efforts to reverse Brain Drain
should: educate one self on the opportunities available to be
involved with hands on experience in Ethiopia and establish a
steering committee that can network with pertinent organizations
both inside and outside of Ethiopia.
3. Organizations like ESAi should: design an implementation plan
and establish a follow up committee within the organization to
mandate and coordinate individuals' effort and help to unfold
information about United Nation Development Program
(UNDP), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and
other organizations involved with Ethiopia.
class="bodytext">Hence, solving the brain drain
problem would not fall on one person's shoulders or become
the burden of one institution. Instead, it would rest on the
consciousness of a collective group of concerned citizens residing
either in the country or in the diaspora. After we wrapped up
this workshop, I had an opportunity to attend
the 'Imagine This' workshop conducted by Bersabeh
(Chair of San Jose State ESA) and Mesay (Officer of Stanford
ESU). They discussed how small contributions could make a big
impact for those in need.
One attendee raised his hand
and stated, "We don't need to start with a big project;
every contribution we pledge makes a difference." He said
he just got back from his
visit to Ethiopia and had sponsored seven children and put them
through college. Those kids did not have the test scores required
for the government to help them pay for their education. He
said he pays $300.00 a month and that takes care of
the children's needs to attend school. Not everyone can
afford $300.00 a month, but whatever amount, whatever ideas,
and whatever forms of organization we do can add up to something.
For instance, this individual is paying $300.00 for seven students,
which is about $43.00 per child, per month. What if say, five
people contribute about $5.00 a month and educate one kid, or
even ten people coming together and contributing about $3.00
per month and sponsor one child.
The 'Imagine This'
workshop participants made a point. There is no such thing as
a small contribution. What seems small to us could give hope
and make a big difference in the lives of children who lack
education and are living in abject poverty. Let me just say
this exchange of ideas itself is a big first step towards
taking action. At the moment, ESAi has over 900 registered members.
Be it in the
form of organizations or individuals, ESAi is linked to members
residing in Canada, Europe, Australia, Africa, South Asia, Middle
East, and the United States. These members have active voices
that influence how ESAi operates and the kinds of projects it
carries out. How do they do that?
Well, we know ESAi members as a whole meet once a year physically,
they also take advantage of the resources on the ESAi web page
[http:/ /www.esai.org]. The website is the mass communication
center and virtual office for
ESAi. It is like a living room where families communicate and
exchange ideas constantly throughout the year. Individuals could
be anywhere in the world and via computers and access to the
Internet their voices are included in the decision-making process.
Members have the opportunity to post issues on the website and
get feedback from other members using the online discussion
forum. So far among the 3000 messages posted, a few examples
of ideas discussed include building a
library or an elementary school, organizing a book drive, participating
in summer volunteer work (in Ethiopia), locating internship
opportunities, raising money for orphans, and identifying ways
of increasing AIDS awareness in Ethiopia and the
Beyond the daily interactions, ESAi has a structured method
of electing its officers also via the Internet. First, the election
committee posts a nomination form and
then members have the chance to nominate themselves and others
over a specified period of time. The nominees are asked to either
accept or decline the nomination. After this process, an electoral
board composed of ESAi officers selects the official officers
for the new term of office. The president selects the vice-president.
If only one candidate accepts the position, then he or she automatically
takes office by default. New officers are inaugurated at the
During this year's annual
summit, the wall behind the stage was intentionally decorated
with the colors of the Ethiopian flag. As Nahom Beyene swore
in the new officers, he said to them, "officers you are
about to take this important oath that I had taken last year.
Please raise your hand and repeat after me." At that moment
thought interrupted me, I wished the transfer of power in Ethiopia
had been that simple. So many lives and resources would have
been saved. Soon, I recollected myself and turned my attention
to the stage again.
As I mentioned earlier, the
annual summit serves as a venue of special gathering. It creates
an opportunity for new immigrants to integrate with the brothers
and sisters who grew up here in the U.S. and to be able to commemorate
their common Ethiopian origin. This is where ESAi families share
their ideas, exchange greetings, and cultural talent shows.
They express themselves with their native languages, and yes
they even get to share injera from the same mesob, which is
the essence of our tradition. They discuss the different issues
that concern them as individuals, as students, and as the future
leaders of their communities wherever they might be.
So, the website and the summit are two important methods of
information dissemination for ESAi as a functioning body. As
a student, I have observed and shared ESAi's growth. I
have witnessed positive signs of its 'first steps to
making a difference', which was the theme of this year's
We all are unique individuals.
We also look forward to our professional brothers and sisters
and our elders to enlighten us with their ideas and serve us
as inspirations. I hope we all become each other's strength
and strive toward success. I hope we are able to contribute
to Ethiopia's longterm development. I highly appreciate
ESAi as a whole and all of the individuals who gave me the motivation
to write this piece.
1. Shinn, David H. 'Reversing
brain drain in Ethiopia'. Ethiopian
Health Professional Association.
Alexandria, Virginia: November 23,
About Hager Berhe
Hager Berhe is a student
at UC Berkeley and is a member of ESAi.
In our next issue we will print Hager's interview with
Wubeshet Mehari, founder of ESAi, and Nahom Beyene, former President.