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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

New Counseling Master’s Program Co-Director Shaped by Refugee Experience.

Selam Gebrekristos


In a world often defined in black and white terms, Selam Gebrekristos (’07, ’13) has learned to embrace a life somewhere in the middle. 

“I'm not part of my country anymore, and I'm not fully part of American culture,” she explains. “So I like to say that I'm in the gray.” 

Gebrekristos was a young girl when she and her family fled their homeland of Eritrea in the 1980s, refugees of a three-decade war of independence from Ethiopia. The family settled in Redlands, California, finding safety, though not exactly a sense of belonging. 
The perspective offered by inhabiting and navigating two different worlds — yet being firmly rooted in neither — is part of what started Gebrekristos on a path to becoming a counselor. And it’s the perspective the San Diego State University alumna now brings to her position as the new co-director of SDSU’s M.A. in Education with a concentration in counseling. 

“I think a lot of people experience that in their own lives,” she said. “Whether it's coming out for an LGTBQ student, or the experience of refugees, immigrants or English-language learners from other cultures — there's a common understanding. It's weird, because I tell people, obviously, I can't hide the color of my skin, but it's my refugee status that helps me connect more with people. That feeling of displacement.” 

Inspired to Serve 

Gebrekristos’ roots at SDSU are well established. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in marriage and family therapy (MFT) at the university; she even still lives in the College Area, not far from the warm glow of the Tony Gwynn Stadium lights. As a graduate student in MFT, she cut her teeth working with clients in City Heights and now proudly notes she’s one of the few community college counselors in her profession with clinical experience as a therapist. 

Outside of her SDSU faculty role, she is program coordinator and counselor for San Diego City College’s NextUp program, where she works with students who are former foster youth. She also volunteers in San Diego’s large East African community, leading dialogues about the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues, and provides mental health workshops to Black male students and professionals in the A2MEND Mentor Program. 

“Because I'm grateful for the opportunity to be in this country, I just serve,” she said. “I serve so that people can take full advantage of everything America has to offer, despite everything that's going on right now.“ 

Breaking down barriers 

Most of the students in the SDSU M.A. program are training to become counselors in California’s diverse community college system. As such, Gebrekristos said multicultural competence is one of the most important skills she’s looking to instill. She hopes to encourage students to learn about themselves and their cohort all while learning theories and practice. 

“What's important is that students feel cared for,” she said. “You don't just see me as a number or a member of the general population, you actually know something about me and my culture.“   

Gebrekristos knows something about challenging cultural barriers; she notes that counseling and therapy are decidedly not part of the Eritrean tradition yet. It’s a topic she’s discussed with SDSU’s MFT program director, Sesen Negash — herself an Eritrean-American. 

But she’s also grateful for what her upbringing did provide. After coming to the U.S. as refugees, her parents instilled in her that education is a pathway to social mobility. 

“In my family, there are five children and four have a bachelor’s degree at least and three have master’s at least,” she said. “This is the product of that, right?”

This story was originally published at SDSU NewsCenter.