CULP Senior Edom Tesfa Unites Passion with Practice on the Hilltop

Student smiles in front of wall

Edom Tesfa smiles in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Policy & Leadership Conference in 2016.

December 5, 2017
by Matt Raab

Threading her experiences as a second-generation immigrant together with budding passions in research and academia, Edom Tesfa (SFS’18) is taking steps toward a future she could not have envisioned before her time at the School of Foreign Service.

Tesfa is a Culture and Politics (CULP) major studying the social contexts of immigrant, refugee, and English learner (EL) education in the United States. On the Hilltop, she has spent her three years taking full advantage of all the research experience the school has to offer, driven by her own personal experiences and interests.

“As a second-generation immigrant from a working-class family, I know all too well the obstacles that immigrant students and their families face in the U.S. education system,” Tesfa says. “In part because of the obstacles I faced – racism, xenophobia, classism, mismatches in social capital, and so forth – I initially did not think that academic research would be something that I could pursue. Ironically, my experiences as a second-generation immigrant ended up driving my research interests.”

The CULP major provided me with the freedom to explore a more individualized major while being intellectually challenging and just structured enough for me.

That research experience began with a unique connection between Georgetown and Tesfa’s high school, the International Academy at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Tesfa discovered that Professor of Government Douglas Reed had published a book, Building the Federal Schoolhouse: Localism and the American State, focused on her high school and hometown.

“I read the book from cover to cover and recognized people alongside whom I had worked and events that occurred while I was growing up,” Tesfa says. “After finishing the book, I emailed [Reed], we met in person, and he hired me as his research assistant shortly after that.”

From there, a valuable relationship grew.

“Writing out all the ways in which he has supported me would take up too much space, but I will say this: thanks to him, I now want to earn a doctorate and become a professor, something I did not think was possible for me before I met him,” Tesfa says.

So many opportunities can open up simply by introducing yourself to faculty and expressing interest in their work.

Presently, Tesfa still works with Reed, but has also branched out to her own research, harnessing her personal background and experience gained at SFS.

Five students in Philadelphia

Edom Tesfa traveled to Philadelphia with four of her friends, who were exchange students at Georgetown for the 2016-2017 school year.

“My undergraduate thesis, which I began writing as a junior, examines racial and ethnic identity development among Ethiopian- and Eritrean-American undergraduates,” Tesfa says. “Through a combination of participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and content analysis of Twitter data – memes in particular – I aim to understand how diasporic youth situate themselves – and are situated by others – within a racial paradigm completely unlike that in the Horn of Africa.”

Tesfa’s own family and heritage has played an important guiding role in her research and overall experience at Georgetown. As a student from an immigrant family and a member of the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), thoughts on accessibility and inclusion have deeply personal roots.

“I grew up working-class, and while my parents set aside some money for my education, I did not want to make them struggle to make ends meet. We have relatives that live in Ethiopia and Lesotho to whom my mother sends remittances, so I wanted my parents to be able to support them as well,” Tesfa says. “Georgetown’s commitment to meeting 100 percent of an undergraduate’s demonstrated need made me more optimistic about the future.”

And looking forward, Tesfa intends to keep working on these questions and related issues in professional research.

“I hope to earn a Ph.D. in sociology, with a focus on the social and academic experiences of immigrant, refugee, and English learner (EL) students in U.S. secondary schools. I am interested in continuing to study issues that I am studying as a CULP major right now: integration, exclusion, bullying, academic motivation and achievement, et cetera.”

I want to be able to produce research that will help teachers, administrators, superintendents, and policymakers create secure and welcoming environments in which all students can succeed.

Two students in Seoul

Edom Tesfa (SFS’18) and fellow BSFS student Sarah Mack in Seoul during the summer of 2017.

To reach the place where she is, and keep moving towards those future career goals, Tesfa acknowledges that the assistance and expertise of Georgetown’s faculty has been indispensable. She noted the guidance of several SFS professors: the mentorship of Professor Shiloh Krupar, field chair of CULP; the support of thesis advisor Professor Lahra Smith, of the African Studies Program, “both professionally and personally;” and the insight of Professor Katherine Donato, Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration.

“Being able to learn from a leading scholar in the sociology of immigration has been incredible, especially as I hope to one day become a scholar in the same field,” Tesfa says.

Fittingly, after all her work at SFS, Tesfa stresses one essential piece of advice for students looking to take full advantage of SFS.

“Go to office hours! Georgetown is large enough that our faculty have a wide range of specializations, but small enough that our faculty are also accessible. Had I not gone to office hours from the beginning of my freshman year, I would not be where I am today.”