Bisrat Bayou has a way of making people feel welcomed. When we met, right before the start of the school year, Bayou’s schedule was overflowing with commitments. If he was feeling overwhelmed, he didn’t show it. Instead, the soft-spoken senior exuded a genuine warmth and friendliness during our nearly hour-long chat.
As undergraduate student body president, Bayou’s been front in center when it comes to issues affecting his fellow Tommies. He believes the undergraduate student government should be a transparent, approachable group of student leaders who people feel comfortable coming to with their thoughts and concerns. The Hopkins native is the first in his family to attend a university and since arriving at St. Thomas as a member of the Reaching Excellence in Academics and Leadership (REAL) Program prior to the start of his first year, Bayou has continued to be active in campus life. Along with his role in student government, he’s been a resident adviser, part of the all men’s a cappella group Summit Singers and a member of both the Black Empowerment Student Alliance and the African Nations’ Student Association.
Bayou’s face lights up when talking about his Ethiopian roots – his parents, along with members of his extended family members, immigrated to the United States from the African nation before he was born. A neuroscience major with a public health minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Bayou plans on tackling issues of health disparities in the future, possibly in Africa.
“My hope is to start small with health disparities in our community here, and then on a global scale,” he said. “My hope is to go back to Ethiopia and provide that fortified aid for my country and for my people. Illness might be inevitable if it’s not treated. I’ve always been interested in addressing those disparities.”
Here are highlights from our chat including Bayou’s thoughts on his St. Thomas experience and his ideal Saturday afternoon.
Do you have any personal goals that you want to accomplish as student body president this school year?
I really want to be there for people and be that voice for people. I don’t want this presidency to serve as a resume-builder kind of role. I want to make sure I’m doing the work I’m supposed to do and serving the students, as well. If I’m here just for the title and doing the basics, for me, that’s not achieving anything. I need to make sure I’m pushing myself. Being elected comes with a sense of trust and responsibility. I plan to take that all fully in and be that person people can come to and voice their concerns.
In regards to the university’s action plan to combat racism, I want to make sure effective steps are being taken. A lot of changes and actions are being promised, so I plan to hold the administration accountable to their commitments. Systemic change is not a simple task, and it only makes it easier when everyone contributes. You don’t have to be a student body president to do the work. I want people to be empowered to challenge structural norms regardless of who they are. The more we work together, the stronger we become and the closer we get towards sustainable transformation in our community.
What advice do you have for first-year students coming in?
The biggest thing is to be yourself. Nobody has the power to tell you who you are as a person or what you can do. No one can put those limitations on you.
When I came into this institution as a college student, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was lost my first semester, and then I met people who helped me understand who I was as a person. They empowered me and told me I didn’t have to change for anyone. I found a community who respects me and loves me for who I am. If you are yourself, the community that’s right for you will come, and they’ll be there for you through the ups and downs.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and what would you do there?
Ethiopia. My parents and my grandma have done very well in making me culturally aware, but I know I’m missing a lot. A lot of that is missing who I am as a person – my identity, so going to Ethiopia and taking everything in would be number one on my list. To have the ability to understand how their society works from my own perspective. You hear all these stories, and Ethiopia has been through its ups and downs, but it recently just elected a new prime minister and he’s been doing great things to uplift the community and bring people together. I’ve looked up to him a lot as well, and I’ve been keeping up with what he’s doing over there with his policies. Having that firsthand experience – that’s something no one could take away from me.
If there was a soundtrack to your life, what would it be?
That’s so hard! I have such a wide variety of musical tastes. I will tell you that I love hip-hop and R&B. If you ask any of my friends, they all know that I’m a big Beyoncé fan. Just what she does with her music and what she does for society, as well in her community, is empowering.
Do you remember the first song you sang around the house?
I do not. Although, I can remember my mom always singing Ethiopian nursery rhymes to my younger siblings and thinking she had a beautiful voice. She used her voice to show that she cared about her children. That might have been my first love of music. I wanted to sing like her.
Who’s the most influential and/or inspirational person in your life?
My grandmother is both for sure. After my parents immigrated here as refugees, they helped other family members come over. My father’s mother stayed with us. She taught me how to be a respectful human being. She helped me learn her native language – Amharic.
She taught me life lessons I’ll never forget. While my mom and dad were working to bring home food for us, my grandma was home with my siblings and me. She was like a second mother to me. Unfortunately, she passed away from lung cancer in 2012. Before she left, she lost her senses – seeing, hearing – but when we were sending her back to Ethiopia for her final days, she was able to put her hand on my face and recognize me. She told me to make my parents proud and my siblings proud. That’s something I hold very dear to myself. That’s my motivation to become the best I can be. She knew how to make the room light up every time she walked in. She was always laughing. She’ll always be someone I’ll look up to.
What’s your favorite place on campus?
I have a lot of favorite places and each one has its own representation for why I like it. Student Diversity and Inclusion Services in Anderson Student Center – that’s the first place on campus where I was able to see people like myself on a daily basis. When I was overwhelmed, I would go to them and learn about how the world functions through the lenses of people of color. It was like a second home for me.
With my friends on campus, the basketball court is where we always go to handle our issues. We’ve had an intramural team since our first year. It’s one of my favorite things to be a part of. Last year we did really well, but who knows what will happen this year. It’s just a group of guys who love the game of basketball and it helps bring us together.
The OEC (O’Shaughnessy Educational Center) auditorium. That’s where we have many of our Summit Singers rehearsals. I love to express myself through the music and singing with a group of guys who love music for what music is. Being able to make that music with a talented group of guys is always fun.
You have a free Saturday afternoon – no homework or school duties. What does that look like to you?
That sounds like music to my ears. I’d wake up late to my brothers yelling at me to get up. I’d watch some football. We’d have family over for what my dad calls his ‘famous barbecue.’ We’d go out in the backyard and play some football. It’s all about spending time with my family. It’s rare to find a time where you don’t have to worry about homework or anything else.
If you could have dinner with one famous person, who would it be and why?
Nelson Mandela. With my role as student body president, I want to make sure I’m responsible and bring people together. Mandela was an expert on that. He was so fine-tuned and knew how to bring people together in his own way and through his own language. Give me five minutes with him and I know I’d come away as an entirely different human being.
What’s the last show you binge-watched?
“Empire.” Once I started watching that show, I couldn’t stop. It’s about music, black empowerment – all this cool stuff.
What was the last album you downloaded?
I download a lot of albums, but the last one was Travis Scott’s “Astroworld.” I’m not the biggest Travis Scott fan, but it’s an amazing album.