Newsroom > News > Press Releases > Addisalem Agegnehu Among First To Earn Degree From New Program

Ethiopian Sudanese immigrant earns degree in refugee, forced migration studies

One in a series of stories about DePaul University’s Class of 2017

Addisalem Agegnehu
Addisalem Agegnehu, an Ethiopian Sudanese immigrant who gained U.S. citizenship in 2010, is part of the inaugural graduating class of DePaul's Refugee and Forced Migration Studies master's program. She wants to one day serve as a refugee or asylum officer. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
CHICAGO — Standing in front of the Massachusetts State House with dozens of other protesters on a chilly Boston evening in 2013, Addisalem Agegnehu finally felt at home. “I found the population I wanted to work with,” she said. An Ethiopian immigrant from Sudan, Agegnehu organized a campaign to raise awareness about human rights violations against Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. It was a turning point in her life.

“I wanted a place for people to gather who were mourning affected family members stuck inside Saudi Arabia,” she said. “The story hit close to home. I’ve always been very close to the refugee and immigrant story. It’s a struggle I can understand very well.”

This June, Agegnehu will be among the first graduating class of students earning master’s degrees in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from DePaul University. Throughout Agegnehu’s journey from Sudan to Boston to Chicago, she has turned empathy from her own personal experiences into service and scholarship to help refugees and others.

Coming to America

Born in Sudan to Ethiopian parents, Agegnehu and her family left Sudan as political refugees seeking asylum, ultimately arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts two months prior to Sept. 11, 2001. When she arrived, she spoke fluent Arabic and no English. It was a difficult transition for Agegnehu, who went on to earn her U.S. citizenship the same day she graduated from high school.

“For the longest time, I had this struggle of being a first-generation immigrant and being from one country, being born in a different country and moving to a third one,” Agegnehu said. “Through that whole relocation process there was a sense of longing for an identity. When I came to the U.S., the first question everyone asked was ‘where are you from?’ I was 10-years old, didn't speak English, and didn't know if I should say Ethiopian or Sudanese. It took me a while to sort through that.”

Agegnehu attended Regis College in Boston from 2010-14, earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a minor in religion. She volunteered in Peru during a sophomore year trip, working with children and helping to build homes. She also spent a semester abroad in the United Kingdom at Regent’s University London, using one of her two elective classes to take a course on refugee studies.

Following graduation, Agegnehu spent eight weeks in Washington D.C. in a program hosted by the Institute on Philanthropy and Voluntary Service, volunteering at AmeriCorps, where she took part in studies, research and activities surrounding homelessness in the U.S. capital. That opportunity led to another at the International Institute of New England as a case management intern assisting refugees with services including transportation to health screenings and acquiring social security cards.

“I loved every bit of it, Agegnehu said. “I met some amazing clients. It really opened up my eyes to this field.”

Life at DePaul

Searching for her next step, Agegnehu sought a degree program that could augment the internships and work she had done so far. In what she calls a “sign from God,” she found through an online search DePaul University’s newly created master’s degree program in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

Started in 2015, DePaul’s Refugee and Forced Migration Studies program is believed to be the first graduate degree program of its kind in the United States. The diverse course offerings include subjects in law, history, public service and international studies. The program also features two sets of practicums, which provide real-world experience to its students. One of Agegnehu’s practicums involved an internship at RefugeeOne, where she helped new refugees prepare to enter the American work force.

“My two practicums really helped shape my career interest,” said Agegnehu. “As a result of the two practicums, I was able to gain experience working with refugees, reviewing cases and learning more about the asylum and immigration process in the U.S.

“With the help of this program, I’ve been able to shape my dream job, which is to become a refugee officer or an asylum officer. I’ve always wanted to work abroad and work in refugee camps. I see myself reconstructing camps and making it safer for refugees, especially young children and women. Displaced women and children face many harsh conditions in camps and one of my hopes is to better construct camps to meet their basic needs and rights,” she noted.

Shailja Sharma, an associate professor of international studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, is one of the program’s founders and has known Agegnehu since she arrived at DePaul.

“It’s been a great experience having Addis in the program, getting to know her and seeing her flourish,” Sharma said. “Ideally, the program was constructed having students like her in mind who had the determination, work ethic and idealism that would enable them to succeed in their life work.”

For Agegnehu, DePaul has been the perfect fit in her life’s journey to help refugees.

“DePaul’s mission and values really help me,” Agegnehu said. “It gives me energy. It helps me continue to be passionate about the things I’m passionate about. That’s something I really appreciate about DePaul. I really like the tight-knit family we’ve created in this program. I love this school.”


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