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President's Medal/Dean’s Award 2023 – Prison, uncertainty don’t deter Aylaliya Assefa Birru

Aylaliya Assefa Birru, who graduated magna cum laude in December with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, is recipient of the President's Medal of Honor and Dean's Award for the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Aylaliya Assefa Birru says she is grateful, and at first glance, it appears she has reason to be.

Birru, who graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology in December, is a 2023 President's Medal of Honor recipient. Birru is also the recipient of the 2022-23 Dean’s Award for the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies (SSIS).

The President’s Medal of Honor is given to the University’s top graduate, and this year President Robert S. Nelsen selected two recipients. Deans’ Awards are given annually at Commencement to seven outstanding graduating students, one for each of Sac State’s academic colleges. 

Birru, who also received the $1,000 Mayada Al-Qazzaz Distinguished Achievement Undergraduate Award, said she wants to be an immigration lawyer serving underrepresented communities. Her future, however, is uncertain.

“I’m very content with where I am now. I’m very grateful, because I didn’t see any of this for myself, considering the darkness I was in.” -- Aylaliya Assefa Birru, President's Award and SSIS Dean's Award recipient

Convicted in 2015 for felony assault, Birru served four years in a state prison and faces possible deportation back to Ethiopia.

“Against all odds, Aylaliya has turned difficult and painful life experiences into a passion for learning and for helping others,” Nelsen said. “As a Project Rebound Scholar, she is an inspiration for us all, and I am so proud that she is a member of the Hornet Family.” 

Birru, 39, fled Ethiopia with her mother and sister when she was 15. The country of her birth was at war with neighboring Eritrea, and if they had stayed, Birru and her sister likely would have been forced to fight.

She settled in Los Angeles and attended Culver City High School, but returned to Ethiopia in 2009 when her mother became ill. There she met and married a U.S. Marine.

“That’s the darkest part of my life,” Birru said.

Within weeks of joining her husband in Roseville, she said their relationship took a turn for the worse.

“In an attempt to defend myself against him, I ended up hurting him and ended up in prison,” said Birru.

She was convicted of felony assault for shooting and wounding her now ex-husband and sent to Folsom Women’s Facility.

Although Birru said she believes she completed the required courses to graduate high school, she never received a diploma or pursued a college education.

While in Folsom, Birru enrolled at Lake Tahoe Community College, taking six to seven courses a quarter. Birru’s drive to find a new direction was fueled by the words of a Placer County probation officer, who interviewed Birru before her sentencing.

“Her summary said that because the defendant is older and doesn’t really have any educational background, she is of no use to our society,” said Birru, who was 30 at the time. “Basically, she said I’m useless. … I carry that with me to this day.”

And, yet, Birru expressed appreciation for the probation officer’s statement.

“I am grateful for her words. Even though they were painful, it’s what I needed to hear at the time. I’m not that person. I’m not defined by that,” she said. “It was a lack of education and not having enough self-worth that got me in that predicament.”

After Birru earned an associate’s degree in Social Sciences, the prison warden gave her a pamphlet for Project Rebound, a program to help incarcerated people get a college education. Launched in 1967, Project Rebound has satellites on 14 CSU campuses including Sac State.

“I started receiving mail from them really fast, and they were very supportive,” Birru said.

After serving four years, Birru anticipated being released. Instead, her green card was revoked and she was transferred to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, where she was held for more than a year.

“It was terrible,” she said. “Prison is much better than ICE. The facility was a dungeon, not meant to be long term … but I had no choice, and I toughed it out.”

Even so, Birru said she is grateful.

“It wasn’t a total waste, because I grew in my faith, which prepared me for all the things that were going to happen,” she said. “So, I’m grateful, regardless.”

Birru has appealed an immigration judge’s deportation order, and her case is making its way through the courts. Her petition to Gov. Gavin Newsom for a pardon has been pending since 2019.

“My best hope is that the governor and his office will really see who I was as a person before this case, and who I have been since,” Birru said.

Meanwhile, she enrolled at Sac State, where faculty described her as warm and supportive toward other students, as well as engaged in class discussions.

“She had so many different ways she could’ve gone, and she chose to channel it into her work for different organizations and being an excellent student,” said SSIS Dean Dianne Hyson. “ ... Even during Zoom times, when cameras were off, she’d be the one with her camera on asking questions.

“What struck us when we were looking at all the candidates was how she took this adversity and channeled it into positive things for other people.”

Birru now is a mentor with the Division of Juvenile Justice, guiding incarcerated youths to use their time to prepare for college. She sits on the advisory board of the New Breath Foundation in Oakland, which supports Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants and refugees; people impacted by incarceration, and deportation; and survivors of violence. 

She also is involved with Survived and Punished Organization, a volunteer-run program that campaigns for the abolition of custodial sentences for victims of abuse. She also works as an administrative coordinator for its national coalition.

Birru said she plans to continue helping people from marginalized and disadvantaged communities.

“I know there are many students deserving of this award,” Birru said. “I’m very content with where I am now. I’m very grateful, because I didn’t see any of this for myself, considering the darkness I was in.”

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About Jennifer K. Morita

Jennifer K. Morita joined Sacramento State in 2022. A former newspaper reporter for the Sacramento Bee, she spent several years juggling freelance writing with being a mom. When she isn’t chauffeuring her two daughters, she enjoys reading mysteries, experimenting with recipes, and Zumba.

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