WHEN A STUDENT IS ELECTED vice-president (external) of a student association, you would think that this achievement is something out of the ordinary for that person. After all, a one-year term as vice-president can be stressful, full of unpredictable events and an indescribable amount of learning. For most students, this really is the case: becoming a student association exec stands out as the defining moment of a student’s university experience.
Considering everything that Petros Kusmu has accomplished during his five-year stint at the University of Alberta, you would be hard-pressed to think that his foray as Students’ Union Vice-President (External) is something that he cannot handle.
Over the last decade, few students have accomplished anything remotely similar to Kusmu. And even if they have, they won’t have done it with nearly as much style.
When Kusmu enters a room, whether it is the Students’ Union 2-900 offices, the Legislature Building along the North Saskatchewan River or a laid-back bar on Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue, he stands out. It’s as if Kusmu walked straight out of a GQ spread, with a fresh pair of corduroy trousers, chocolate-brown moccasins and a grey cardigan that together form a fashionable yet relaxed outfit. From the moment that he walked the corridors of the Old Arts Building, Kusmu’s shown that students need not sacrifice a sense of style for academics or a few additional hours of volunteering every week. Unlike most students, however, Kusmu’s style is deeply ingrained in who he is; growing up, he was deeply influenced by the actions of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which played an influential role in the American Civil Rights Movement. While organizing projects in southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, these volunteers maintained an uncanny sense of style. Their influence is felt decades later, not only through the drastically-altered social and political landscape of the United States, but the students like Kusmu that contribute to a better world, and look good while doing it.
From personal experience, having served as Vice-President (Academic) only one year ago, I’ve seen how student politics can become high-stress and hectic, often to no benefit for anyone involved. Sometimes, situations that seem complex and cumbersome are actually quite simple. But it takes perspective and a calmness of mind, in order for this to be the case. Kusmu has this perspective, and it’s obvious the moment you meet him. On camera, he’s a natural, ebullient and charismatic. In Council Chambers – his home away from home since 2008 – he speaks easily and without pretense. And in high-pressure one-on-ones with Members of Parliament, you can only assume that it’s more of the same. Although student government at the University of Alberta is already rich in its variety of student leaders, Kusmu adds considerable vibrancy to the mix.
While growing up, Kusmu’s itinerant lifestyle instilled in him a penchant to favour the uncomfortable over the comfortable. Born and raised in Edmonton, Kusmu moved to Eritrea at the age of ten, though the move was never expected. Many years earlier, his parents emigrated to Canada following unrest in Eritrea as it worked toward independence from Ethiopia. While working several low-paying jobs, his father earned a Chemistry degree at the University of Alberta, minoring in Mathematics. Following a string of Engineering jobs, the elder Kusmu moved back to Eritrea, with Petros and his mother remaining in Edmonton.
It was only during what was expected to be a short trip to Eritrea, that the family would return there indefinitely. Accustomed to the benefits of living in Canada, with a strong education system and countless opportunities, Kusmu did not favour the change of scenery. “When you’re a kid, you don’t want to move to a developing country. All of your lego, your hockey sticks, YTV, Family Network. Especially when you’re ten and you weren’t planning to move […].”
For the following seven years, Kusmu would travel widely while attending an international school. Regardless of his physical location, Kusmu always knew that he would earn a university degree, with the University of Alberta being the logical choice. Halfway through grade eleven, Kusmu returned to Edmonton, completed high school over the next year, and then progressed on to university life. Though he notes that the transition from Edmonton to Eritrea and back was awkward, it has left an indelible mark on his worldview.
“If you’re a young person with aspirations [in Eritrea], it’s hard, to be honest with you,” Kusmu said. A troublemaker in school, Kusmu could always return to Canada to pursue higher education; his cousin, on the other hand, did not have such an advantage, despite his studious habits. Because of his birth in Canada, Kusmu’s upbringing allowed for travel overseas, whereas his Eritrea-born cousin would be constrained by Eritrea-bound mobility.
Upon his return to Edmonton, Kusmu would look at lethargic students with dismay. Whereas even the brightest students in Eritrea might not be able to attend university – and even if they did, the government often dictated their field of study – students in Alberta were failing to take advantage of opportunities handed to them on a silver platter. Years removed from his time in Eritrea, Kusmu approaches his tenure as Vice-President (External) with a similar mentality. Though there is considerable room for improvement in the Canadian post-secondary education system, there is nevertheless plenty of room for one to forge a unique path.
And this Kusmu has done. Thirteen years removed from an unanticipated journey to Eritrea, and five years since the birth of a university education, Kusmu will soon move onto new adventures. With impeccable style, of course.
Emerson Csorba is a third-year Sciences Politiques student, writer, avid runner and fashion magazine addict. You can find him on the River Valley trails or relaxing in Remedy. He is slowly making his way through Alastair I.M. Rae’s Quantum Physics.