Graduate volunteers in Democr​atic Republic of Congo

Alarmed, Beza Tesfaye Mekonnen ’18 scrutinized the tree-tops of the Democratic Republic of Congo from her airplane window seat. Having received her plane ticket the day before, the realization struck her like a block of ice: “Is this something I want to do? Do I really want to be deployed in a foreign land?”

She pushed aside her fear and uncertainty to cultivate connections as a new volunteer with the African Union Youth Volunteer Corps (AU-YVC), an organization that deploys African youth to volunteer in the 54 African Union countries.

Mekonnen, an Augustana communications, French and sociology graduate, had just spent several weeks in the Republic of Congo training for the one-year volunteer program.

A few years before,  a Marianne Williamson quote in simple, black lettering hung on the wall of her dorm. It read: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness [t]hat most frightens us.”

Mekonnen said the words reminded her to remain optimistic instead of letting fears thwart her goals.

“We’re afraid to try something for fear of failing, but I think the actual bigger fear is that you’re afraid to succeed,” Mekonnen said.

Early this November, the African Union selected her out of 37,000 applicants for the AU-YVC.

Suddenly, Mekonnen had a decision to make—should she volunteer in a war zone for a single year or find a secure job in Sioux Falls that would last much longer?

“I was picking between: Do I just want to stay here and be safe? Or do I want to do something that I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the year and just take a risk?” Mekonnen said.

She said she confided in her parents for advice when her passion for communication and language prompted her to leave her pre-med major after her freshman year.

“We discussed how Africa needs good communicators who can be a voice for many that are often dismissed,” her father, Tesfaye Mekonnen, said. “I believe Beza can be an asset for her country and for Africa.”

Although the chance to become the voice of ‘the dismissed’ comes with pressure, Mekonnen tends to push past fear.

“I think we all want to succeed, but then, you don’t know what you’re going to do if you succeed in the way you imagine yourself to succeed,” Mekonnen said, “That may sometimes unconsciously stop you from doing it as well as you could.”

Mekonnen recently began her stipend-paid position for the Tax Justice Network Africa in Kenya as a communications officer writing news releases and travelling to fundraisers. The offer came within a month of her AU-YVC acceptance, despite the fact that volunteers often wait over a year.

“She’s always wanted to give back,” Mekonnen’s long-time friend, Christian Abera, said. “Information is one of the very valuable things in the world right now, so she wants to give back by sharing different information to different groups of people.”

Whether travelling to America, the Republic of Congo or Kenya, Mekonnen tosses herself into unfamiliar settings.

“There is always fear of the unknown,” Mekonnen said.

Her decision to overcome fear opened the opportunity for her to connect with others. Between flights to the Republic of Congo, Mekonnen connected with her family during an unexpected layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol city and her hometown.

Chatter and laughter swelled in the white-walled living room adjacent to a piano room in Mekonnen’s home. Her entire family gathered eating Injera, an Ethiopian bread, to celebrate her 24-hour return.

Like a picture settled in a frame, the beige drapes bordering the grandiose French window framed Mekonnen alongside older siblings, Tihitina, Michael, and Baakal, hearing her 2-year-old nephew Zema babble away in Amharic for the first time.

In the fall of 2012, Mekonnen attended her first international student orientation at Augustana; since then, she graduated and returned to finish a third major. In 2016, Mekonnen served as co-president of Better Together, Augustana’s interfaith organization.

Hale Hamito, her Augustana roommate and friend since 6th grade, said she used her communication skills to lead by example, demonstrating people of different faith as friends.

“She always was trying to get people from different backgrounds and different cultures to be able to live in this world together in harmony,” said Hamito.

The 2007 Ethiopian census reported 63 percent Christianity and 34 percent Islam in Ethiopia. Growing up Christian in an interfaith culture, integrated Mekonnen with people of diverse backgrounds.

This upbringing qualified her to link with people through the African Union as well.

“I felt like I connected with almost everyone,” Mekonnen said. “The first general impression I had was that I went to Congo, and I met a bunch of me.”

The AU-YVC group bonded over successful moments using an air high-five, or bosa.

“Bosa, bosa, BOSA!” the group yelled while raising their hands in the air.

Mekonnen drew people toward her with quiet words in between laughter that bubbles up like an unexpected secret. As she pushed past her fear and uncertainty, her natural connective energy brought the opportunity to reach her goals.

“I always say ‘oh my God, what’s meant for you will happen for you,’” Mekonnen said.


Leave a Reply

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: