Three women smile at each other.

Eastern High School (Jefferson County) graduate Solyana Mesfin’s (middle) term as the first nonvoting student member on the Kentucky Board of Education came to an end in April 2022. The next nonvoting student member is Boone County Junior Joud Dahleh. Photo by Jacob Perkins, June 8, 2022.

Editor’s note: This speech was originally given by Solyana Mesfin at the Kentucky Board of Education meeting on June 8, 2022.

Let me start off by saying this is the continuation of something so admirable for the future of this Board of Education and the students of our Commonwealth. The work we have done these past two years will transcend far beyond this current moment and soon touch every stakeholder in this system. So, as I deliver this farewell, may we all take in this historical moment and cherish everything that has made it possible for Allison and I to be here today. 

This day, and everyday of my term, I stand on the shoulders of students who have come before me, student voice allies, and active students in the classroom. If it were not for the countless hours of dedication, persistence, and courage of these students, there simply wouldn’t be a seat for us at this very table. I attribute the creation and continual existence of this seat to them and may we leverage this position as a reminder that each and every student has the capability and promise to influence this system. 

The purpose and message of this seat is to emphasize the tremendous need of student inclusion in decision making, policy, and everyday discussions pertaining to students. To, yet again, prove the fact that we can and will exceed any task relating to reimagining our system. To highlight the power of a diverse student voice movement district and statewide. To promote the importance of allyship and co-creation in relation to student-led endeavors. And to support districts in establishing authentic student voice structures that allow for collaborative innovation. It is an honor to serve as the inaugural student representative on the Kentucky Board of Education and try my very best to uphold this message during my term. 

As I reflect on the past two years, I treasure the knowledge that I have gained from students across the state along the way. From brainstorming equitable policies to finding excuses to get out of an exam, it is some of the most valued life lessons I have taken with me. The bond and drive students gain as they discuss education is something that should never be overlooked, it is a direct link to what changes our system for the better. I take every conversation, every interaction and every perspective with me to this board table. I unfortunately can’t reach every student, but ever since the beginning, I have dedicated my term to never stop listening. Listening to not only students who come forward, but to those who are being heard the least. 

Students are not a monolith. It is vital that education leaders be intentional when discussing and providing for students. The concept of student representation has to be based on the recognition of the diverse array of students in this Commonwealth and a vow to dedicate your time to understanding the shared experiences of many. Representing other students looks like selflessly giving up your seat at the table to center another student, lending your resources to progress the vision of a fellow student, admiring and continually supporting the successes of others and taking students along the journey. It is about viewing every student perspective as equal and worthy of action, and through the endless support of my colleagues at the Department and Board of Education, I was able to quickly find the true meaning of representation. 

I entered this position in 2020 as an eager, willing and open-minded girl who knew she had to undergo many lessons on education. I am now exiting as a woman who unapologetically addresses educational inequities and cherishes the journey of lifelong learning. This is all due to the fantastic allies I have  met along the way. 

To the members of the Kentucky Board of Education, the way you have embraced this student position, despite pushback and unfamiliarity, is truly honorable. You laid trust in my hands the moment I sat at the table, or should I say logged into the Zoom meeting. You valued and took into account everything that I had to say and applauded my every move. You have always lent your expertise when countless confusing things were happening in education. And you stood beside Allison and I when the student and teacher seats were threatened, focusing on our wellbeing prior to our action. I can’t express how much each of you mean to me and mean to the outcome of this position. Every state has a Board of Education, and every state could have a student on that board, but having a student-inclusive board is what truly dedicates the work towards students. I deeply wish that all local Boards of Education and Site Based Councils can follow suit and work towards being student inclusive. 

Within this position, we have been able to increase student-led presentations to the board. Amplify the message of student voice and authentic implementation across the state. Incorporate students and other stakeholders in several of our subcommittees, and so much more. We have made amazing strides, and the momentum is just getting started. I won’t be surprised if all of y’all get replaced by students at the conclusion of your terms. 

I will miss this family and the relationship we have built. It is because of this family that I found the courage to continue fighting for education, even when it felt impossible. Every time I sit in that seat, I am reminded of my calling to education. The calling that I once never had and that so many students lack. My biggest hope is that students find a supporting relationship within their school building and develop a love for education like everyone in this room. The power of relationship building in our schools shifts the potential for the contribution of our stakeholders. 

So I thank you. Thank you for nurturing and uplifting this position, thank you for your dedication to Kentucky students, and thank you for the support along the way. 

Thank you to the Department of Education, the place I have called home for the last three years. Thank you for being the first to trust my desire and ambition to entire this field and be a part of the conversation. You provided me with the motivation and resources to pursue student advocacy and that has made such an impact on my life and this role. I’m glad to say that three Commissioners later, the Department of Education has revamped their student voice initiatives and made students a priority. 

I have to acknowledge the tireless student organizations and initiatives that continually proved that students can and have been acting as partners in this system. To the Kentucky Student Voice Team, Commissioner Student Advisory Council, The Real Young Prodigies, Kentucky Student Council Association, and so much more. I thank you for the dedication and effort you have put in to amplify the potential and work of students across the state. You are actively defying the adult-driven narrative and providing resources for stakeholders to be allies. The student voice movement in Kentucky is continually being shaped because of your contribution. These organizations have laid the framework for students to have seats on decision making committees and so much more. They have directly influenced this position, and I’m honored to recognize them. 

As a black, first generation high school and low income student, I have now concluded my term as the inaugural Student Ex-Officio member on the Kentucky Board of Education. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve in this role, representing 650,000 of the most passionate and driven students in the nation. Thank you to members of the Board, staff at the Department, and most importantly the students. I cherished every moment and provided my all to accurately represent Kentucky students. I am glad to say this is just the start of my education journey, I’ll be attending the University of Louisville studying Sociology and Secondary Education in hopes of becoming a Psychology educator and work within education policy. I’m glad to stay in Kentucky and continue to work on student advocacy and education justice. This is heavily influenced by the support of this board, and I am more than delighted to pass the torch to Boone County Junior Joud Dahleh, as the second appointed student member on the board.