FRANKFORT — As the first student to sit on Kentucky’s Board of Education, Solyana Mesfin found herself at the forefront of a hectic year for education — both as a policy influencer and a high school student.
The year’s events showed student input can be both prioritized — the creation of Mesfin’s non-voting seat is one example — and marginalized — state legislation threatened to cut the role within months.
Sitting in a conference room in the state education department offices in Frankfort, the 17-year-old said “adaptability” has been a theme to her year.
“It’s just adapting to the craziest situations, whether that be COVID outbreaks or legislators,” she said.
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The daughter of Ethopian immigrants, Mesfin grew up in Virginia before attending middle school in Ethiopia.
When she came to Louisville for high school, she was “completely clueless.”
She didn’t know how to open a locker or that she had a school email. She felt “left out” and didn’t know where she fit in.
“I had nobody to really walk me through just how to operate high school life,” said Mesfin, a rising senior at Eastern High School.
“All I knew was that I was a student in a Kentucky public school and, you know, I’d witnessed some things about it and I had something to say.”
She applied to be on the Kentucky’s commissioner’s student advisory council and made it. A few years later, she took “kind of a gamble” and applied to sit on the state education board.
She made that, too, and was appointed to the ex officio role in October 2020.
State education leaders and her peers on Kentucky’s Student Voice Team celebrated her inclusion, with the latter saying Mesfin “brings exceptional capacity and perspective to the job.”
While Mesfin can’t vote on policies before the board, she has a seat at the table to weigh in on behalf of Kentucky’s more than 600,000 public school students.
She never reviews pages of documents associated with a standard board agenda for just herself, she said. She shares them with students across Kentucky to get feedback.
Like her start to high school, being the first student on the state education board came with difficulties. Being the first meant no template for how she was supposed to act in the role or approach policy discussions.
And then her seat, along with a similar spot for an active teacher, was threatened by state legislation earlier this year, highlighting concerns that students are often ignored or overlooked in education policy.
“I know firsthand that when it comes to discussions held by the board, the perspective a student brings to the conversation is critical and incomparable,” she said in March in defense of her role.
Students rallied around her. The seat was saved, but the situation lingers in Mesfin’s mind months later.
She first saw her seat’s creation as a sign Kentucky now accepts student voice, or “is at least open to it.”
“I think, to some extent, that’s true but also it just reminds me that this is a continuous fight that students and teachers have to still keep fighting,” she said.
How can educators and lawmakers better acknowledge students? It’s easy, Mesfin said: By “just listening to them.”
Acknowledge students’ opinions are “legitimate,” she added, and then turn it into action.
Now more confident in the role, she hopes the second half of her two-year term will be “really dominant on the student aspect of the board.”
She’d like to see more student participation in state board meetings, and wants to reach a wider array of students in Kentucky to get feedback on policies.
As a 17-year-old, Mesfin also has a personal goal.
“I haven’t gotten my license yet, so I want to get my license,” she said, laughing.
She plans on “just embracing each and every bit” of her senior year, taking time to reflect and appreciate her surroundings: “It’s a privilege that I get to be back in school next year.”
After graduation, she wants to go to college, “hopefully in Kentucky,” and hopes to still be immersed in education.
“I hope to be an educator in the future,” she said.