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In the Spotlight: Roza Essaw

Communications major uses voice in order to make others heard

By Melanie Jarrett

Roza Essaw knows what it’s like to be an outsider, but she’s never let it stop her. To truly understand the SMU senior, a triple major in communication studies, human rights and political science, one has to go back to her arrival in Wylie, Texas, a town with a population of just over 40,000 located northeast of Dallas.

Wylie isn’t the type of town where a new girl from California blows into the local high school and becomes “someone.” It’s the kind of town where classmates have known each other since grade school, where new kids face an uphill battle just to find a seat in the cafeteria, much less a seat in student government.

But Essaw wasn’t intimidated; she established her voice swiftly, giving an early indication of the inspirational young woman she would become. The West Coast transplant quickly became freshman class president, ultimately assuming the role of leading the entire student body.

Clearly Roza Essaw doesn’t settle for not being heard. In her time at Meadows, the Hunt Leadership Scholar has evolved into a globetrotting advocate for overlooked populations in places like Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Africa. She has held key roles in campus organizations such as Student Senate, the President’s Commission on Alcohol Prevention and the Business Advisory Council.

Her most pivotal experience – the one that turned her career path on its ear, pushing her far past her well-earned comfort zone – was her first chance to study abroad: in South Africa, as part of a grant from the Division of Communication Studies. For the first time she came face to face with human rights issues, and “the experience blew me away,” she says.

“These people tell you their stories, and they want you to be a witness for them. I realized it was the main reason I had become a communications major at Meadows: to use my voice in order to make others heard.”

Her mission to give voice to the voiceless took her on a 2011 Richter International Fellowship to Ethiopia and, through an SMU Engaged Learning grant, to Rwanda a year later. The stated purpose of the latter trip was no less ambitious than “to assess the human rights situation in post-genocide Rwanda through on-site interviews and research.” A semester’s stint in Copenhagen wrapped up her undergraduate studies abroad, and Essaw is now firmly entrenched back in Dallas for her last semester – forever changed by her international experiences.

“The Rwanda trip especially took an emotional toll on me,” says Essaw. “Every step you take on the street is somehow impacted by genocide. You get to the point where you just assume that everyone you talk to has lost somebody in their lives. But I finally realized that if these women could be so courageous, then what am I sitting down and crying for? Their courage and bravery is what inspires me daily.”

Essaw has herself become a source of inspiration for her fellow classmates. Communication Studies Professor Rita Kirk, who offered Essaw her first internship through the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, says Essaw is living the ethos set forth by Meadows Dean José Bowen: eschewing comfort zones in pursuit of testing limits and finding your passion. “One of the things she signifies to the students is that life is dynamic, and you shouldn’t have to settle for a future you’re not entirely happy with,” says Kirk.

Essaw has only a few months left on the Hilltop to cement her impact; after graduation she hopes to go on to law school and study international and human rights law. But she still has a few things left to accomplish, such as reconnecting with friends like Essete Workneh, a former roommate and fellow communications major she has known since their early student government days in Wylie.

“Roza has inspired a lot of people, myself included,” says Workneh, who recalls Essaw pushing her to run for a top position in Student Amnesty International – a position she successfully won. “She has a rare kind of confidence, which she is able to instill into others with her wisdom and her energy.”

Not lost on the young activist is a sense of gratitude – an obligation even – to the people who made all of her travels, internships and research projects possible.

“I feel that my scholarship donors want to give me something, and I’m therefore compelled to do more than just go to class and come back,” says Essaw. “My involvement in these projects is a way to show that, because people are investing in my education and my future, I am also investing myself in other populations to try and help them in whatever small way I can.”

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