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 all students.

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, and responsibility.

5.) To serve as a clearinghouse of information on contacts and resources pertaining to Ethiopian issues.

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 online.

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 Student Association/ 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 Area’s 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 in action.

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, but they also take advantage of the resources on the ESAi web page [http:/ /]. 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 Diaspora.

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 annual summit.

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 a 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 summit.

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 the brain drain in Ethiopia'. Ethiopian Health Professional Association. Alexandria, Virginia: November 23, 2002.

Ibid; 2002.

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.