Eyouel Mekonnen, student body president of the Student Government Association (SGA) at EKU, was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, making him the first international student to become student body president.
He is also the first Black student body president in 40 years.
“It was a little crushing, I’ll be honest, the weight of knowing that you’re the first international student to become student body president, you’re the first African American in 40 years,” said Mekonnen. “And the impounding question of ‘Is it going to be another 40 before there’s another person of color in a position of prominence? Is it going to be another 80?’”
However, Mekonnen also remarked that he is grateful to everyone that supports him.
“I also have to mention just the amount of support that I had from my friends and the community around me. I would be remiss if I were not to mention that,” he said.
Mekonnen moved to the United States alone when he was 14-15 years old. He stayed with family in Dallas for the summer before he settled in Clay County, KY, and attended a boarding school as a teenager.
He decided to come to EKU after many of his high school friends expressed interest in the school.
The first time Mekonnen became involved with SGA at EKU was his second or third day on campus. Mekonnen shared that he was walking by the Powell Building during the Colonel Craze event when a former president of SGA encouraged him to join.
As a first-year student, Mekonnen ran for a senator position, winning the last seat (the fourth seat) by four votes. He would go on to become the director of diversity his sophomore year and continued in the position as a junior. He ran for president of SGA as a senior with his current executive vice president, Nick Koenig.
Mekonnen described himself as a person always concerned with things he believes are not right. This was an integral factor when it came to his decision to run for president. Mekonnen believes his role in SGA allows him to advocate for students that may not have a voice.
“Just because some students don’t have the comfort or luxury of involvement does not mean they should not be involved in our representation,” said Mekonnen.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, SGA did not have a functioning senate or executive branch at the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester when Mekonnen officially took office. This forced SGA to rebuild their entire student government structure.
Despite these hardships, Mekonnen had nothing but positive things to say.
“I think that everyone in student government, every single member, has done an outstanding job of building from the ground up,” he said. “And that has just given us the amazing opportunity that we would have never gotten, had we not done that, to build equitably.”
Following his legacy as the director of diversity, one of the first things Mekonnen did at the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester was create an anonymous survey within the student senate to gather data on students’ race and ethnicity as well as those that identify as LGBTQ.
“Eyouel was the one that put that together. He was the one that ran the survey and put it all together, and it’s a beautiful document,” said Koenig. “It really helped us get a direction in what we look like as a body.”
According to the Student Government Association Diversity Report, reflective of data from September 2020, 77.4 percent of students identified as white; 9.7 percent identified as Black/African American; 9.7 percent identified as Asian/Asian American; and 3.2 percent identified as Ashkenazi Jewish.
“If you heard our race and ethnicity, we had zero Hispanic students in our student senate at the time, which was a huge problem,” said Koenig.
Following the survey, Koenig and Mekonnen made it their goal to recruit more Hispanic students by visiting some of the diverse student organizations on campus, such as the Latino Student Association. Koenig recruited two students to the student senate to ensure representation of Hispanic students.
In addition to this diversity report, Mekonnen also shared that in September 2020, the student senate set a goal for passing 50 pieces of legislation. Mekonnen spoke about a bill he was particularly proud of, Senate Bill 001.
The bill was “an act to ensure student representation in all university committees concerning student affairs and involvement.”
Mekonnen shared that the bill was labeled as “001” because it was his administration’s first priority to ensure that all students were represented in the university.
“You cannot make a decision that is representative of the student body ora decision that benefits the student body entirely without any student there,” he said.
The student senate’s goal of passing 50 pieces of legislation was not only met but surpassed. Mekonnen shared that the student senate passed 52 pieces of legislation by Dec. 9-10, 2020.
“What that means is literally 52 ideas and projects and initiatives that have just taken root,” said Mekonnen. “Some of them are now full-grown trees, and some of them are still seeds that probably we won’t get to see them grow.”
Mekonnen also spoke about the importance of SGA and how members are preparing themselves to be leaders not only now but going into the future. He believes that SGA is integral to teaching students how to actively participate in a democratic government.
Another accomplishment that Mekonnen is proud of is having hosted the first Diversity Inclusion Panel in Spring 2020, before the start of the pandemic. The panel focused on discussions between professors and students about the importance of inclusivity of diverse students on campus.
“He started so many initiatives in SGA, and he really shaped SGA,” said Koenig. “He’s done so much more in terms of diversity. He’s not just a diversity advocate, but he advocates for so many issues.”
Going into the future, Mekonnen is still unsure of what he would like to do but shared that he would most likely see himself working in the non-profit realm after he graduates from EKU. Specifically, advocating for women’s education in emerging and rural economies of the U.S.
“What I’m excited about Eyouel is what he does after EKU, and more so,” said Koenig. “Student body president is amazing, but this is not going to be his biggest achievement in life, I know of it. What he does after EKU is going to be super exciting.”