It is her last semester at UVA, and Kalkidan Woubishet is steadily ticking items off her list of academic requirements in the midst of planning A Taste of the East, one of the largest philanthropic events sponsored by UVA’s Ethiopian Eritrean Student Association (EESA). The annual fundraiser is in its third year (last year’s was canceled due to COVID regulations), and as the EESA Special Events Chair, Woubishet brings together student talent across Grounds to showcase cuisine, fashion, music, and culture.
“This event highlights the Ethiopian Eritrean or East African community here because we are at an intersection at a lot of different identities. Our goal is to educate others within the broader UVA community and give voice to those individuals, as well as raise money for different causes,” she says.
Woubishet has served on EESA’s executive team since her second year, and it is a position that is near and dear to her heart. As a first-generation Ethiopian, she spent the first five years of her life in her home country before her family immigrated to Northern Virginia.
“I love planning big events, and this position combines my passion for my home country, my passion for creating a vision and seeing it through even if people may think my ideas are crazy, and my passion for giving back through service-oriented opportunities,” she says.
Finding Community on Grounds
EESA has had an incalculable effect on impoverished communities in East Africa, using special events and fundraisers to support nonprofits and non-government organizations (NGOs). The 2021 Annual Charity Date Fundraiser collected nearly $7,000 for three nonprofits, including an organization that provides reproductive surgeries for Ethiopian women with life-threatening conditions.
Woubishet partners with other organizations on Grounds to sponsor EESA-led events, ensuring that the money raised goes directly to charitable organizations in Ethiopia. She has planned events supporting Mary Joy Ethiopia, an economic-improvement nonprofit that engages women and youth in income-gaining activities to lift them out of poverty, and Shamida Ethiopia, a nonprofit NGO that provides critical services to orphans, street children, those with special needs, and impoverished children.
“Our work has an impact on people. I know that I am blessed to live here and live the life that I lead, so I want to be able to give back in any way that I can,” Woubishet says. “EESA and this position [of Special Events Chair] really gave me a lot of my lifelong sisters, and it gave me a home here at the University that I didn’t think was possible, so I’m very appreciative.”
That sisterhood provided Woubishet an important support system as she navigated a somewhat unsteady start to her UVA career. The Questbridge Scholar originally entered the University as a student in the School of Engineering but quickly realized that path wasn’t for her.
“As a first-generation Ethiopian woman, I was brought up to think I needed to be a doctor or an engineer,” she explains. “But ever since I was eight years old, I said I wanted to be a CEO. I grew up around a lot of business-minded people, and I was enamored by the fast-paced nature of business, so at that point, I knew McIntire was where I wanted to be.”
Discovering Her Voice and Values
Woubishet was accepted into McIntire and began her third year at UVA with the School’s Integrated Core. In addition to gaining knowledge and real-world business skills she would later apply to internships, community service work, and her professional career, she also developed meaningful relationships with her professors and fellow students.
“When I was deciding where to go to college, it came down to the fact that I wanted to have an experience where I could meet people I could forever hold on to, who would push me to discover myself, while still getting a quality education,” she explains.
One such person who had a lasting impact on Woubishet was her Communication professor, Marcia Pentz.
“She pushed me to really grow into my voice and into my values. When I first got to Comm, I sometimes felt awkward sharing my perspective as a first-generation woman from a socioeconomic background that differed from my classmates. Professor Pentz encouraged me to share my viewpoints, and reiterated often that the general population reflects many different opinions and feelings.”
Woubishet found opportunities to develop her communication skills outside of the classroom as well. She says working in small teams with her classmates introduced her to varying approaches and leadership styles, which taught her how to navigate different personalities and working conditions.
“I learned how to speak up for myself in a way that was assertive and respectful. Knowing how to deal with those types of situations is beneficial because I will inevitably be faced with similar circumstances in the workplace throughout my career.”
Post-graduation, Woubishet will join DC-based consulting firm Kearney. She says her immediate goal is to learn as much as she can about the consulting world and build a strong network. Eventually, however, she hopes to attain a coveted CEO role, specifically for a luxury retail brand.
“I’m really passionate about understanding branding and how people view companies. I want to do my master’s in luxury retail,” she shares.
But before she leaves Grounds to pursue her professional goals, Woubishet hopes to inspire others to apply to Comm through her position as a Student Ambassador, and build on the diversity she has championed during her time there.
“I became a Student Ambassador so I could inspire people who look like me and let them know they have a place here. But beyond physical diversity, I joined to show potential Comm students that McIntire accepts people who have different viewpoints, academic backgrounds, and personal experiences. I’ve learned to be vulnerable and open about my story. Every story is unique, and every story is beautiful; students just have to feel comfortable highlighting theirs.”
It’s a lesson that Woubishet learned herself, more recently in her Global Marketing course, as her professor Rick Carew encouraged everyone to share their respective histories with the class. Woubishet says that as she learned more about every single person, she came to realize that a book cannot be judged by its cover.
“Everyone had such different life experiences, and there were so many stories that you wouldn’t be able to see when you first walk in to the classroom. I realized that every single person had more to them than what I saw,” she says.
“Besides receiving a high-quality education at UVA, the people I have met here have really shaped me into who I am today. I have met people who are truly my best friends. They’ve pushed me, taught me so much about myself, and have allowed me to grow into who I am. It’s a priceless gift.”