By Brian Lynn ’98
As president of the Associated Students of Eastern Washington University, Dahir Jigre (Da-here Gee-gray) exemplifies the opportunity and impact the university’s emphasis on first-generation students can have on a life, and ultimately society.
His story, laced with hard work, confidence and opportunities seized, spans two continents and multiple moves within before ultimately finding focus and vision at EWU. Jigre, or “D.J.” as he’s known throughout campus, is a senior working toward a BA in communications, a minor in race and cultural studies and a certificate in leadership – three disciplines that have helped propel him to the forefront of the student body, and which lay the foundation for his future.
Born in Jijiga, Ethiopia, Jigre has a unique appreciation and perspective of America. Reflecting on a time when American children are starting first grade, he recalls a typical childhood, but with nuances distinctly African. “It was similar, but different. I remember climbing trees and playing in the dirt. Many areas of Africa have pavement now, but back then it was mostly dirt,” said Jigre. “One of the best things I remember is chasing dogs. I was terrified of dogs, but knew I had to conquer my fears. So, my friends and I chased dogs to see who could run faster than them. We were running barefoot in the sand and, looking back, it was probably dangerous because they wanted to catch you and, I don’t know, probably kill you – or at least bite you!”
Jigre’s family owned a pharmacy market, with an above-average lifestyle, but instability and unrest within the region prompted his father to give up the business and move the family to America. His parents’ hopes were that their five children would receive an education, a stable future and that possibly one day they could return to Africa and help Ethiopia. “Growing up there is one of the memories I cherish, and what makes me appreciate what I have now,” Jigre said. “When you come from a place where you had nothing and now live like a king, you don’t take anything for granted.”
With the aid of a great-aunt living in California, his parents procured visas for the family. Jigre was 8 years old. “It was my first time being able to see an airplane. It was hard to sit still. My parents tried to keep us terrified to keep us in our seats,” he laughed. “But I was like one of the legends – I was flying!”
The amazement with flight, however, paled in comparison with the paradigm shift Jigre would undergo upon landing in California. “Everything I knew about life vanished. Everything from TV, everything that was in a virtual box, was now reality,” he said. “Everything was possible to me.”
For nine years, the family lived in the San Jose, Calif., area. With his father chasing the American dream, the family made frequent moves as he took new jobs. Jigre estimates he attended four elementary schools and three high schools – including a yearlong stint during middle school when he, his uncle and grandfather relocated to Renton, Wash.
During this time, Jigre kept a low profile. He kept quiet and tried to blend into the background of each new school; a safe place where he could observe his American classmates and their culture and figure out how best to fit in. He understood that each new school would likely be a short-term endeavor. A consequence of his haphazard education is that Jigre didn’t invest in relationships – friendships, teachers or the school as a whole. Interestingly, he credits those survival lessons as the foundation of his ability to quickly analyze any situation or question now – a skill he’s finding helpful in college and as he’s ascended from scared newcomer to confident and outgoing student body president.
In August of 2006, the family settled in Kent, Wash., with the promise of it being the final move. Jigre consciously decided to “make his move” and worked at creating bonds with his Kent-Meridian High School classmates and becoming involved in track (including taking the school to its first state cross-country appearance in a decade – something that was easier than running from feral dogs).
Eventually, he applied for a highly competitive low-income scholarship and then to EWU, among other schools. After visiting the university and being accepted, Jigre felt a connection with the school and once again made a vow to himself: “I’m going to make something happen here.”
His freshman year, with a mindset of involvement and blasting through roadblocks his background presented, Jigre heard former ASEWU president Oscar Ocaña give a speech that focused his intent. The speech encouraged students to seek out and tackle the opportunities possible at EWU. From that moment, Jigre made ASEWU president his goal. He wrote it on Post-It notes that stuck to his mirror, and for the next two years became involved in every aspect of EWU.
During his junior year, he once again made his move – running for, and winning, election to the highest student office. Almost a year in, Jigre is happy with his administration’s accomplishments, but said there’s much more work to be done to increase student recognition and participation.
“I’m very excited that we’ve almost accomplished everything that I promised,” he said, noting active student involvement in the discussion of quarter-to-semester changeover, participation in and voting on the Pence Union Building (PUB) remodel and expanded library hours.
For Jigre, who is eyeing a possible future in motivational speaking and continuing his education in student affairs or public administration, the future is more exciting than that first airplane ride to America – his vision, one of legends.
“Impossible doesn’t exist for me; it’s only possibilities. This life cannot even keep up with me. I want to change the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of hate and misunderstanding in the world, but I think love can conquer all. I want to reach out and connect with people and make them see the similarities. We’re all the same inside. The only thing separating us is how we see things and our interpretation of them.”