Las Vegas Sun

June 21, 2021

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UNLV to honor immigrant’s long, hard journey to graduation

: Adugna

Steve Marcus

Graduate student Adugna “Adu” Siweya poses at UNLV Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Siweya, an immigrant from Ethiopia, will graduate with a Master’s Degree in Public Health on Thursday.

Adugna “Adu” Siweya said he would drive his taxi past UNLV many times during his shifts taking passengers to and from McCarran International Airport. He would glance over at the university and envision what it would be like being a student.

Not only has Siweya experienced what it would be like, this week he will receive his master’s degree in public health from UNLV.

“When am I going to go to college? That was my thinking all the time,” Siweya recalled of his early cab-driving days.

Siweya had worked as a pharmacist for 17 years in his native Ethiopia before relocating to the United States. His pharmacy credentials weren’t accepted here after he narrowly missed passing the foreign pharmacy equivalency exam because, he said, his English was lacking.

So, he drove the cab for nearly 10 years, always looking to return to the health field and knowing UNLV would be the ideal starting point.

When one of his daughters, Mieraf Teka, was a high school senior, she made him a proposition: Let’s attend college at the same time.

She enrolled in 2014, and he joined her a year later.

“She encouraged me and came with me to talk to an adviser on campus. I don’t forget the first time when we were together here,” he said. 

Today, Siweya will surely have another memorable moment when father and daughter will each attend UNLV’s commencement ceremonies for students earning graduate degrees in 2020 and 2021. 

Siweya, 55, has certainly made an impact, finishing with a 3.97 grade-point average in his master’s program while raising his family and continuing to drive his taxi while in undergraduate studies. He is one of seven outstanding graduates being honored this weekend by UNLV President Keith Whitfield.

“He’s like the hardest-working person ever,” Teka said of her father. “Seeing him as a student, he is what everyone wants to be. He takes every assignment seriously. I’m very proud of him for sticking it out and not giving up on learning.”

Teka graduated last year with a master’s in education, but the class of 2020’s ceremony was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Click to enlarge photo

Graduate student Adugna "Adu" Siweya poses with his daughter Dagmawit Teka, 23, at UNLV Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Siweya, an immigrant from Ethiopia, will graduate with a Master's Degree in Public Health on Thursday. Teka is a student at George Washington University.

Another daughter, Dagmawit Teka, now attends George Washington University.

Siweya said he had many motivations to attend college later in life. At the top of the list was spreading health awareness to immigrants like himself. Even before the pandemic, Siweya noticed that the immigrant community was often left in the dark about public health issues. 

“In immigrant communities, they are hesitant about the (COVID) vaccine,” he said. “I see those who don’t follow public health rules, so there is this awareness gap, even before COVID, and also unhealthy lifestyles. I try to just integrate my knowledge with those communities and try to find some way to help.”

Siweya will be recognized for co-publishing two papers, one about indoor pollution in Nepal and the other about cancer mortality disparities among Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander populations in California. He also found time during his studies to volunteer at Three Square food bank and Rebuilding Together, a nonprofit that helps low-income people with home repairs.

During his undergraduate studies, Siweya would wake up at 4 a.m. daily for work and take night classes. When he reached graduate school, he finally quit driving the cab and worked at a research lab on campus.

With his master’s degree in hand, Siweya will continue working part-time at the UNLV lab while he pursues a full-time job doing advocacy work for immigrant health care.

One professor who nominated him for the president’s award said Siweya “stands out from the rest” for his ability to balance school and life, according to UNLV.

Of course, he had a great support system in his daughter, Siweya said.

Mieraf Teka, after earning an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, returned to Las Vegas for graduate school. Father and daughter were on campus many times together, often helping the other with assignments or proofreading a term paper.

But, at least initially, Siweya was embarrassed to join her and her friends because a student “with gray hair sitting with young adults” was out of the ordinary, he said. He wanted to give her freedom to be independent, but she stressed it wasn’t a burden — it’s what she wanted.

After all, it was her persistence that helped launch his studies at UNLV. 

“For so many people, it’s a surprise because it’s so unusual for daughter and dad to be studying college materials. It makes us very close to each other,” Siweya said.