After a Long Road to UCLA, He’s Now on the UC Board of Regents Drawing lessons from his own journey, Social Welfare PhD student Merhawi Tesfai aims to break down barriers to higher education
By Mary Braswell
Merhawi Tesfai joined the University of California Board of Regents at an interesting time, to say the least.
Tesfai, a UCLA doctoral student in social welfare, has participated in discussions about UCLA’s move to the Big Ten Conference and its purchase of a Rancho Palos Verdes campus to expand enrollment, and he was at meetings during the largest higher-education strike in U.S. history, involving graduate students across the UC system.
And that was just the fall of 2022.
“The strike and the Big Ten took up a lot of the time and conversations, but there were all these other very important issues that didn’t get as much attention,” said Tesfai, who joined the board last summer as student regent-designate.
For the 2023–24 academic year, he will serve as the board’s sole student regent, with full voting rights, giving voice to the statewide system’s 285,000 students.
At listening sessions with students, chancellors and administrators from every UC campus, Tesfai has heard concerns about sustainability, housing, scholarship support and more. His role is to faithfully convey those issues to his fellow regents, a board that comprises 18 appointees, the UC president and other officers, along with elected leaders including the speaker of the Assembly and governor of California.
Tesfai’s journey to the UC’s governing body has been anything but conventional. He brings to the position the unique perspectives of transfer students, first-generation students, older students and parenting students — and a record of using his own experiences to light the way for others.
Tesfai was born in Eritrea, but his family fled conflict there, moving to neighboring Sudan before eventually relocating to Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood when he was 5. His mother prized education, sending him to charter schools on the Westside and insisting that he apply to college. But more than a decade would pass before Tesfai would find his way to UCLA.
After high school, he enrolled at Cal State Long Beach but left after three semesters.
“I was just not ready at that time,” he said. “It took a few years before it became something that I wanted to do and not something that I felt pressured to do.”
So Tesfai entered the workforce while taking community college classes. He eventually found his calling in the field of counseling and therapy.
“I really felt that this was not just a job; that I could actually help people in some way,” he said.
He began taking courses toward a certificate in substance abuse counseling at Los Angeles City College, but professors there encouraged him to connect with UCLA’s Center for Community College Partnerships, which offers resources for prospective transfer students. Soon, Tesfai was in touch with a UCLA peer mentor — “someone who looked like me and who had come to school a little bit later as well.”
Then 32, Tesfai weighed whether returning to life as a full-time student was the right move; the summer before he would enroll was a whirlwind highlighted by the birth of his son. But he moved forward, earning a bachelor’s degree in African American studies in 2019, followed by master’s degrees in public policy and social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs three years later.
“When you come in and you’re trying to get your bachelor’s and you’re trying to do a minor and you’re trying to set yourself up for applying for a grad program right after — it’s a lot that you have to cram in there in short periods,” he said. “But luckily, a lot of resources and a lot of encouragement came along with it.”
As an undergraduate, Tesfai was accepted to the prestigious McNair Research Scholars program, which provides guidance for students aspiring to earn advanced degrees. At the Bunche Center for African American Studies, he engaged in research on race and inequality. And through the Center for Community College Partnerships, Luskin Black Caucus and other campus groups, he reached out to students from underserved communities, letting them know that a UCLA education was within their reach.
Now, Tesfai is on track to become a quadruple Bruin: He expects to complete his doctorate in social welfare within four years.
Undergraduate and graduate students from any UC campus can apply to serve as student regent; candidates ultimately must be confirmed by the full Board of Regents after a rigorous selection process. Tesfai initially became interested in the post to help fund his doctoral studies — the position comes with a stipend and waiver of tuition and fees during the two-year commitment. But he has come to value how the responsibilities dovetail with the topic of his dissertation, which focuses on barriers to navigating higher education.
He hopes to use his position to advocate for increasing the ranks of underrepresented students throughout the UC.
“This is something that was informed by the long road it took for me to get here,” he said. “I have seen the different ways that high schools, community colleges and universities can really excel at preparing students to just get to a four-year university and potentially to grad school or into whatever career they want. Or how they can fail.”
And Tesfai hopes to honor the guidance he received from the other students, professors, counselors and administrators who helped him along his own academic journey. “I want to do that for others, wherever I can.”