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‘Why I Do the Things I Do’

LEAD Scholar Saron Weldemariam ’26 shares her journey as a first-generation immigrant from Eritrea to Santa Clara University.
November 3, 2023
By Nicole Calande
Saron Weldermariam standing against wall wearing Santa Clara University sweatshirt
| Photo by Jim Gensheimer

During her first year at Santa Clara University, Saron Weldemariam ’26 threw herself into everything she pursued from her ethnic studies and sociology double-majors to her leadership roles within Igwebuike and the African Student Association.

“When I wasn’t busy, I felt like I was just falling behind,” she quips.

But despite her dedication, Weldemariam felt seriously burned out by the end of spring quarter and was missing her family back in Wisconsin deeply. It took a life-changing Ignatian Center immersion experience in Costa Rica to shift her perspective.

“I met several immigrants from Nicaragua and El Salvador and really resonated with their experiences—hearing their stories helped me reconnect with my old self again. They reminded me of my purpose and why what I was doing mattered. Education is the reason my family came to this country, and I want to honor that.”

Changing her path

When Weldemariam was nine years old, her family moved to Milwaukee, WI—more than 3,500 miles from their home country of Eritrea.

“Coming to this new world, you don’t really know what to expect,” she recalls. “It was a total culture shock since I had only ever been around people who looked like me. But it was also very exciting, because I got to meet my dad in person for the first time.”

Her father had left Eritrea when Weldemariam was only three months old in order to escape the country’s compulsory and often indefinite military service. After years of navigating refugee and immigration paperwork, Weldemariam’s family was finally reunited—a lengthy process that inspired Weldemariam to one day become a lawyer.

“The first thing that I share with people is the fact that I’m an immigrant, simply because it explains a lot of why I do the things I do,” she says. Describing herself as a family person, Weldemariam knew early on that she wanted to excel in school to make her parents proud.

However, after struggling in an underfunded public school, when the time came for high school, Weldemariam’s sister encouraged her to “change her path” by attending Dominican High School, a private Catholic school.

“It was the first time in my life that I was taking control of my education. My first year at Dominican was really hard because it was like I had to learn English all over again, but if I hadn’t gone there, I don’t think I would have been able to go to a school like Santa Clara.”

Saron Weldermariam standing with friends in front of brightly painted wall

Weldemariam has found a community of friends that share her Habesha background through her involvement with LEAD and the African Student Association (ASA). Pictured here is Ruth Janfa '26, Saron Asfaw '25, Hermon Welde '26, Weldemariam, and Abigail Yosief '26.

Leading towards home

Since her spring immersion, Weldemariam learned to take things a bit slower her sophomore year by spending more time on the experiences that ground her, like being part of the LEAD Scholar Program. Between the resources and microgrants that LEAD has offered her, Weldemariam credits the program with giving her a sense of home away from home.

Since moving to the US, she hadn’t met anyone from her ethnic group outside her family, but at SCU, she became close friends with three other Habesha girls with Orthodox Christian ancestry in Eritrea and Ethiopia. According to her, having a community that shared her heritage and language was “one of the biggest gifts I received from LEAD.”

Being a part of LEAD has also given Weldemariam personal mentorship from professors like Juan Velasco-Moreno, who taught Weldemariam’s Critical Thinking and Writing (CTW) course.

“He was always so warm, and at the beginning of every class he had us practice mindfulness,” she says. “Because of his encouragement, I became a LEAD CTW peer educator, which I love doing. I literally call two of my students every morning so they wake up in time for their morning classes.”

Having learned so much from her first year of college, she hopes to continue mentoring other LEAD Scholars like herself. Her advice to first-generation students who may be struggling or questioning their sense of belonging? Stay present.

“Do the things you love more often, whether that’s talking to your mom or having the smallest conversations with the people you feel connected to. Also, it’s okay to question your path—questions often lead to answers.”

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