SMU grad & family exemplify American dream

If ever there was an SMU family living the American dream, it's the Essaws of Wylie, who moved to this country 12 years ago after receiving political asylum from Ethiopia.

DALLAS (SMU) — If ever there was an SMU family living the American dream, it's the Essaws of Wylie, who moved to this country 12 years ago after receiving political asylum from Ethiopia. And this is their month to celebrate.

At May 2013 Commencement, dynamic SMU student Roza Essaw, received three degrees with summa cum laude honors in communications, human rights and political science.

What’s more, her mother, father and sister are earning their own degrees at other nearby universities in May.

Roza’s mother, Senedu Asfaw, will earn her M.B.A. in project management and her father, Essaw Jagiso, his M.B.A. in strategic leadership from Amberton University in Garland. Roza's sister, Bezunesh Essaw, just earned a B.A. in nursing from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. And in recent years Roza’s brothers Nahom and Yonathan have earned degrees from UT-Dallas.

How did they do it? Roza’s parents at times worked three jobs each to provide for her and her siblings, all of whom have netted academic scholarships and in some cases taken part-time jobs to help with expenses.

“My family has been so blessed by the educational opportunities this country has offered us, so we’ve worked very hard to take full advantage of them,” she says.

Inspired by what she’s learned at SMU, and the many opportunities she’s had to study abroad, Roza plans to pay it forward by pursuing a master's degree in human rights at the London School of Economics. There she’ll pursue a career in international human rights law – a field she says can help many more families like hers around the globe.

Roza’s decision to attend SMU followed a unique and transformative opportunity the University gave the Wylie High School graduate in 2009: The chance to meet one-on-one with her leadership role model, Condoleezza Rice. (For a related story, go here.)

During her SMU academic career, Roza earned a Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship, Hunt Leadership Scholarship, SMU Mustang Scholarship, a Richter International Research Fellowship and numerous other honor society and leadership accolades – all of which helped her study in South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Copenhagen, Eastern Europe and El Salvador.

SMU grad Roza Essaw, far left, will earn academic degrees in May 2013 along with her sister, mother and father.
SMU graduate Roza Essaw (far left) received academic degrees in May 2013 along with her sister, mother and father.

“The Rwanda trip especially took an emotional toll on me,” Roza says. “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.”

“Roza is the epitome of a young compassionate person who wants to get into this world and change it for the better,” says Rick Halperin, director of SMU's Embrey Human Rights Program. “She is the essence of what future world leaders will hopefully be all about.”

Roza, named Outstanding Senior Woman by the SMU Mothers’ and Dads’ Clubs, has served on SMU’s student senate and held many roles in community service and ministry programs. She also has completed internships with the U.S. Department of Justice and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and, since 2011, SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, with whom she plans to work this summer to help supplement the cost of her move to London.

Whatever one chooses to do in life should be done to the fullest, Roza says.

“You don’t know what you can accomplish unless you take yourself out of your comfort zone,” she says. “My parents, who have inspired me the most, are living examples of that.”

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