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The Carletonian

Nature, cruel and complex

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ENTS Professor Tsegaye Nega has not followed what you might call a typical trajectory towards becoming a professor. Having grown up in Ethiopia during a time of widespread famine, he knew from a young age that he was interested in the relationship between humans and their environment. He faced many obstacles, however, on his way to becoming a professor.

“What really shaped my life is famine,” Nega said. “The first official famine in Ethiopia was in 1974. I was a little boy at that time and I saw a lot of people dying of hunger. And at the same time that you had millions of people dying, the king was preparing a celebration of his birthday with cake from France and Scotch from England. And the military was mobilized to keep the famine victims out of the capital, so that they wouldn’t enter the city and spoil the feast. That was my first exposure to hunger and famine.”

Witnessing these injustices was what led Nega to participate in political demonstrations in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa demanding that the land be returned to the farmers. While many of his peers were killed during these demonstrations, Nega was sent to prison — twice. First at age 13, then again at age 15 under the country’s new military regime.

“Since then, the relationship between poverty and famine has shaped the way I think about the environment and development,” Nega said. “So since I was about 10 or 11 years old, that’s the only thing I thought about.”

In 1994, Nega came as a refugee to the United States, where he wished to pursue his academic interests at an American university and obtain a graduate degree in Conservation Biology. Graduate school, however, would not be possible for Nega without sufficient income to pay for it. Upon arrival in the Twin Cities, he began juggling several jobs, working up to 100 hours a week as a bus driver and parking attendant, while also studying for his graduate school entrance exams.

“I used to work from 2:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. as a shuttle bus driver in downtown Minneapolis. From midnight to 8:00 a.m., I worked as a parking attendant. Because there’s nobody after 1:00 a.m., you’re just simply sitting there. That’s an excellent opportunity for me to study for my GRE exam while making money. But the problem is that I rarely slept, because you can’t sleep on the job. So that’s how I studied for my GRE.”

Although he excelled on the GRE exam, the faculty in the program he wished to enter were reluctant to let him enroll since the application deadline had already passed by the time his exam results came in. This, however, did not stop Nega.

“Every week I would go into [the program director’s] office. Every single week. I don’t give anything to him. I just establish eye contact so that he sees me, and I leave. I do that for about six or seven weeks. Every week I come and find him. So finally in March he laughed and he said, ‘Come on in. What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to go to graduate school.’”

Although still unsure whether or not he would be able to enroll in September, Nega used the summer to work and to begin studying the material, knowing that juggling two jobs he would not have time to study once the semester began.

Finally, in September, with the help of a loan from American Express, he was able to begin his studies. Having already studied the material, he excelled in his classes; however, when he realized that he would be unable to pay the second installment of his tuition, he informed his professor that he would be dropping out.

“I went to the professor and I said, ‘It was a good occasion to be part of your class but I have to withdraw.’ So she walked me to her office and I told her: I come to class after working 16 hours nonstop from 2:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. The class starts around 10. So I get the bus from Minneapolis to go to the campus, sleep under the sun for an hour, and go back to work. And I told her that’s how I support myself.”

That professor then helped Nega put together a proposal to win a MacArthur Fellowship, which he received. Although the scholarship gave him a paid research position, he was still not earning enough income to support himself.

“[The research position] paid $800. But that’s not enough,” Nega said. “So I used to sleep in Como Park [in St. Paul], but nobody knew. And then the police used to come and wake me up so I realized that this was not sustainable.”

Finally, Nega applied for a scholarship from the Bill Gates Foundation. He won the scholarship, which paid his full tuition and living expenses. In 2002, Nega finished his PhD and applied for a Postdoctoral position at Carleton.

Here at Carleton, Nega has pursued his interest in Environmental Studies as it stands at the intersection of the social and the natural sciences. He has taught courses on Science and Society, Biodiversity Conservation, Global Food Systems, Landscape Ecology, and Conservation and Development, among others.

Around 2005, Nega began to feel “disillusioned” with the type of courses that he was teaching, feeling that they were “totally removed from the real world experience that has shaped my life.”

Since then, he has also started a spatial analysis initiative, extensive research projects, and an off-campus study program on Conservation and Development in his native Ethiopia.


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