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“May 12 will be a very rewarding day for me,” Hermella Tesfazgi says. That is a big understatement. Not only is Hermella completing graduate school as a first-generation student, but she has shouldered a load in her final semester that is almost incomprehensible.

In January, Hermella recalls that she was coming off the “highest high.” She had just returned from a study-abroad experience at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. She had written a report for the Center for Data Innovation that was published. And then, just as she was about to head back to Durham for her final semester of classes, her father died unexpectedly in a car accident. Everything came to a halt.

“It was very sudden,” she says, “and it was four days before the start of the semester. In those four days I wrote his obituary, planned the funeral alongside family, we had the funeral … and in in those four days I had to decide whether to take a leave of absence or continue school.”

Hermella’s family owns the Red Sea Eritrean & Ethiopian Restaurant in Charlotte, NC. She knew someone had to take the lead to keep the business afloat in the midst of their shocking grief.

Her dad, Tekle Gebremussie, grew up in Habo, Eritrea and experienced a devastating famine as a child. He was often hungry. Because of that experience, Hermella says, “he had this dream of moving to America and starting his own small business; feeding people for a living.”

Despite leaving school at age 10 to help his family, her dad eventually made it to the U.S. and opened Red Sea. He was a self-taught chef and the restaurant specializes in the food of his homeland like stews, curry and the Eritrean-Ethiopian flatbread injera.

Hermella’s mom and younger siblings all work at the restaurant.

Father smiling at daughter
Mella with her dad, Tekle Gebremussie, on the day she completed her undergraduate degree at Wake Forest University.

Lessons from her father

Her dad was hard on her about most things, Hermella says, admitting that she was scared of disappointing her dad – especially when she was little. He was really focused on excellence. Make your bed. Don’t leave anything to tomorrow. Show up as the best version of yourself.  “How you do anything is how you do everything,” he’d say.

Mella with her mom and sister behind the bar
Mella (right) with her sister and mom. All three work at the restaurant.

Her dad’s perfectionism was great for business but could also be hard on his daughter.

“Think of Michael Jackson or Beyoncé: people who are just so detail-oriented, nothing escapes their eye. You have to be excellent around them because they just value excellence so much,” she says. That’s what her dad was like.

Underneath his tough exterior, however, her dad was fiercely proud of his kids, especially Hermella. The first time anyone in the family saw her dad cry was when Hermella walked the stage to receive her undergraduate degree in economics with honors from Wake Forest University.

When she was considering graduate school, even though the restaurant was struggling through the pandemic – pivoting to takeout, with far fewer customers - her dad again encouraged her to strive for excellence. Though, like many immigrant parents, he hoped she’d study medicine or law, he left the decision to her.

“It doesn’t really matter what you get your degree in,” he said. “Unlock your mind.”

Sanford experience

Hermella started at Sanford with a focus on social policy, but (to her surprise) she switched to tech policy. She has a keen interest in researching and writing platform policies that foster safe and inclusive online spaces.

After her dad died, Hermella quickly connected with leaders of the MPP Program, including Director of Academic Services Belen Gebremichael, and Director of Graduate Studies Ken Rogerson. They helped her make a plan for how to juggle both responsibilities – helping her family run a restaurant and being a student. Hermella has taken all of her classes remotely, writing memos and papers while managing the restaurant’s supply chain, staff, payroll – even filling in as bartender on occasion.

Hermella says that though she's been able to manage it all, it has been the greatest challenge of her life. What keeps her going is remembering how hard her dad worked. In the early morning, when the restaurant is quiet and the sun is streaming in the windows, or late at night when she’s in her dad’s office, sitting by herself in his chair – she feels her dad, senses his presence. And she knows that she can do what needs to be done, and that she will live up to her dad’s exacting standards.

He had this drive, this unrelenting resolve towards any goal he had in mind. And the fact that he was able to go from famine in East Africa all the way to the U.S. and build a business without an education, with no business acumen; he was a Black man in the ‘90s trying to survive. The fact that he was able to accomplish that, I feel like anything I do pales in comparison.” Hermella says.  

“I know I will never have to work as hard as he had to work. And so, I meet this moment with that energy and that force that he instilled in me by example.”

Remembering Dad



We will be sharing graduation stories throughout the week leading up to graduation on Sanford's website, and on our social channels. Need the graduation details? Check out the official 2023 Graduation Page to find parking info, live streams and more. 

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