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UC student body elects first African-American woman as president

Double major Sinna Habteselassie is embracing a new role as a mentor.

 

When Sinna Habteselassie was elected student body president of the University of Cincinnati, she realized she would be expected to speak in public — a lot.

Public speaking was not her strongest asset. For some people, speaking in public is a primal fear. But most people get a little anxious before giving a presentation.

“Anyone who knows me knows I’m terrified of public speaking,” she said. “I’m still working on it. I had to do a five-minute sales pitch last year when I ran for student senate. That was intimidating. But the more you do it, the better you get.”

Habteselassie, a double major in neuroscience and organizational leadership in UC's College of Arts and Sciences, is the first African-American woman to serve as student body president in UC’s 199-year history. Habteselassie said it took some convincing from friends and mentors before she decided to run.

“I said, ‘I have the ability to do it. I can do it,’” she said. “We’re not doing enough to make sure marginalized people have a seat at the table. Hopefully, my presence will encourage other people to participate.”

 

Sinna Habteselassie stands smiling at a podium during a presentation.

UC student body president Sinna Habteselassie gives a speech at a luncheon to discuss UC's Bicentennial the university will celebrate in 2019. (Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services)

 

Her parents emigrated from Ethiopia during the 1983-85 famine when the country was in the midst of a decade-long civil war. The family settled in Maryland, and then in Centerville, Ohio, just south of Dayton, where she and her older brother, Gabriel, were born and raised.

Habteselassie began her academic career at UC with plans to go into medicine. Instead, she is pursuing a career in public health and policy. In that respect, her UC career has been pretty typical. As many as half of enrolling students at U.S. colleges are undecided about a major, according to studies.

“I came to UC wanting to be a doctor. I majored in neuroscience. But I learned that my career doesn’t have to revolve around medicine,” she said. “About 50 percent of students change their minds about their major at least once. I fell into that category.”

While at UC, Habteselassie has traveled to Thailand, where she provided community health outreach to newly arrived immigrants through the student group GlobeMed and its nonprofit partner Social Action for Women. She likes the idea of working abroad for a global nonprofit such as the Gates Foundation. After graduating from UC, she plans to continue her education in public policy and health or international law in Washington, D.C., where many global nonprofits and policy organizations are based.

“I would want to be on the ground working as a liaison,” she said.

Her father, Mesfin Habteselassie, said that role would suit her.

“I am 100 percent sure if she leads her life toward those opportunities, she will be good at it,” he said. “She has a good heart. She’s not selfish. When she believes in something, she stands up for it.”

His daughter has always been driven to succeed, he said.

“She’s very determined. When she wants to do something, she goes for it,” he said. “We are very proud of her.”

 

I never experienced a tuition increase during my entire time at UC. That is big and shows how the university is invested in helping people get a quality education.

Sinna Habteselassie, UC student body president

Sinna Habteselassie poses for the camera on a rooftop with Clifton behind her.

Sinna Habteselassie said she encourages new students to get involved early in campus life, clubs and activities and to find a mentor. (Photo by Michelle Strauss, courtesy She|UC)

 

Peyton Wu, program coordinator for UC’s Office of Ethnic Programs & Services, was surprised to learn that until this year UC had never elected a black woman to serve as its student body president.

“It shows that there is always room for continued growth at this institution,” Wu said.

Habteselassie stopped by Wu’s office one day. Wu has been her mentor ever since.

“There was a lot of pressure and significance knowing she would be the first black woman to hold this position. But the fact that she talks so openly about her identity and how that influences how she wants to lead sets a different kind of precedent. She doesn’t shy away from her identity,” Wu said.

“On a personal note, I’m really blessed to work with a lot of students in my role. Sinna stands out as one of the most impressive students that I get to work with,” Wu adds. “For her to consider me a mentor honestly is a privilege. She really is breaking barriers and boundaries in a way that gains the respect of people around her.”

Habteselassie said the UC Board of Trustees’ decision to continue a tuition freeze again this year has been a huge help in making college affordable.

“That means I never experienced a tuition increase during my entire time at UC. That is big and shows how the university is invested in helping people get a quality education,” she said.

 

Sinna Habteselassie stares back at the camera with determination during a photo shoot. She is wearing a T-shirt that says "VOTE."

UC student Sinna Habteselassie said a tuition freeze the past five years has helped make college more affordable for students like her. (Photo by Michelle Strauss, courtesy She|UC)

 

Habteselassie said she is surprised by how many students ask her about getting help for anxiety, depression and stress.

“Nationally, what we’re seeing is an outcry for mental health resources,” she said.

UC’s Division of Student Affairs offers counseling and outreach programs for students, including a 24-hour hotline (513-556-0648) for students in crisis, victims of sexual assault or those who want to schedule an appointment to speak with a counselor.

“The more we learn about it, the more we know it affects every community,” Habteselassie said. “But in communities of color, it’s not something we talk about enough. It has an awful stigma. We need to destigmatize the conversation in general and make students aware of resources available.”

 

When she believes in something, she stands up for it.

Mesfin Habteselassie, on his daughter's integrity

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/_UKW6iqVVJ4?rel=0

 

Carver Ealy, assistant director of multicultural recruitment at UC, met Habteselassie when he was program director at UC’s African American Cultural and Research Center.

“She would come in and ask for advice. I think she found out that I used to be student body vice president at UC,” Ealy said.

Since student leadership positions require a considerable investment of time, Ealy said Habteselassie wasn’t sure whether to pursue it. She had to turn down an internship. But Ealy said her actions demonstrate she made the right choice. Ealy sees her embracing her new role as a mentor to other students.

“She’s really awesome,” he said. “She is persistent. When she hears an answer she doesn’t like or sees an example of inequality that doesn’t measure up to her expectations, she learns about those systems to figure out how to solve it. That’s what makes her an effective leader.”

 

Aerial view of UC students forming the letters UC at Gettler Field.

Aerial view of a past convocation celebration at Gettler Field. (Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services)

 

To new students enrolling in UC this year, Habteselassie offered this advice: Get involved.

“Be engaged. As a freshman, challenge yourself to be outside of your comfort zone,” she said. “And find a mentor, whether it’s an older peer or a staff or faculty member. That makes a big difference in your collegiate career.”

Habteselassie said she hopes to make a positive difference during her tenure as student body president.

“I hope I do a good job. More than anything, I’d like to see another woman come after me,” she said. “Women do amazing things in positions of leadership.”

 

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