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Student Commencement Speaker Reflects on Failure, Redemption

Ruhama Wolle stands in her red cap and gown in front of the NC State belltower
Communication major Ruhama Wolle, a native of Ethiopia, was selected as NC State's student commencement speaker for Spring 2019.

When Ruhama Wolle steps up to the podium to give the student commencement speech on Saturday, May 11, she will do so with great pride, and with great humility.

Although she’s graduating summa cum laude — with a communication major and a minor in journalism — she is no stranger to failure. And she doesn’t take success for granted.

Wolle is fond of this quote by Nikki Giovanni, her favorite poet: “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts.

“I want to encourage people to make mistakes early in life,” says Wolle, NC State’s Spring 2019 commencement student speaker. “I think that for us to find true comfort, we need to own our own stories, and that includes our mistakes. We can learn to pause and reflect and then move forward in a positive way.”

We chatted with Wolle as she was putting the final touches on her speech and the story she plans to share with her 5,713 fellow graduates students on May 11 when they gather to mark the rite of passage that is college graduation. Here’s what we learned.

You are a native of Ethiopia. How did your journey bring you here?

My mom envisioned a dream for me and my two siblings. She and my dad wanted us to grow up in the United States, to have opportunities they had not had. So when my dad came to the U.S. for a trip, my mom told him, ‘You made it to the U.S. Sell your return ticket, and figure out how to get us all there.’ That was in 1996. Three years later, when I was five, my mom, my older brother and sister and I joined him in San Jose, California. I was a sophomore in high school when we became U.S. citizens.  

I didn’t realize it growing up, but now I know that my parents made a lot of sacrifices for us.

I was in seventh grade when we moved to North Carolina. I didn’t want to come. I was upset about leaving friends behind. But the cost of living is high in California. So one year during spring break, my dad took us on a trip to North Carolina. He found a house and bought it. This time it was my mom who had to stay behind. She was in California for six months until my dad lined up a job and she could join us in Holly Springs.

I didn’t realize it growing up, but now I know that my parents made a lot of sacrifices for us. They did all in their power to give their children access to the best schools and the best home. Looking back, no matter how frustrating it was leaving California, I know everything they did was for a purpose and for us.

My brother graduated from UCLA, and my sister from NC State. I feel we experienced college as first generation students. Even though our parents earned degrees in Ethiopia, those degrees didn’t count for anything when they came here, and they took on minimum wage jobs to support us.  

Your path to graduation wasn’t an easy one. What happened?

I thought UCLA was my dream school. I couldn’t wait to get back to California and go there. But  I got kicked out my third year. I made some mistakes. And I felt like I lost everything, that I had missed my chance. I thought, “It’s all gone.”

I came back to North Carolina and spent a long time in reflection. I decided I needed to try again. I enrolled at Wake Tech. And I was really hard on myself. I didn’t allow myself to make friends; my focus was strictly on my academics. I think I was punishing myself for my earlier failures.

Looking back over my time here, I’m so in love with NC State.

Once you’ve lost something, you realize the privilege of what you had. I wanted it back, and I knew I was going to have to work twice as hard to earn it. But I knew the fight wasn’t over.

When I transferred to NC State, I met one of my best friends during a communication class my first semester. She always told me, “I see the light in you.” She encouraged me to get involved, and we did that together. I took full advantage of the opportunities here.

Looking back over my time here, I’m so in love with NC State. Each semester, I walked away knowing a professor who worked with me one on one, who helped me hone in on research, who helped me find an internship. I was guided every step of the way within the department. I didn’t have any relationships like that at UCLA. I know it goes both ways, and that I made more of an effort here, but it was reciprocated.

What’s next for you?  

I’ve been accepted into the Poole College of Management’s Global Luxury and Management master’s program. It’s a dual master’s program where I’ll spend the fall semester at NC State, and the spring semester at the SKEMA Business School in Paris.

It’s fitting that it’s a dual program, since I have dual passions: One is for advocacy — particularly prison reform — and one is for fashion. I’m going to figure out how to pursue them both. I’d like to throw myself into the fashion industry, and encourage designers to create street fashion tailored for women. And ultimately, I’d love to open my own streetwear shop, and dedicate a percentage of proceeds to prison reform projects. I don’t think I have to choose between my interests. I can find a creative way to bring the two worlds together.