York opportunities broaden graduate’s options 

Alumni Profile: Essete Makonnen Tesfaye 

By Elaine Smith 

As a high school student, Essete Makonnen Tesfaye realized that she was more interested in improving health-care systems than diagnosing individual patient illnesses but she didn’t know how to pursue that goal. Thanks to York University’s global health program, she discovered that a pathway existed.  

Essete Makonnen Tesfaye

“I heard about global health at York from recruiters who came to my high school and realized it was exactly what I wanted,” said Tesfaye, who was born in Ethiopia but grew up in Kenya and Uganda. “I didn’t even know it existed.” 

Her parents encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine, so Tesfaye applied to standard pre-med programs, as well as to York’s Global Health program. When she received both her York acceptance and a scholarship, she told her parents about her choice and came to Toronto for university. 

“The program was exactly what I hoped and it changed my view of the world,” she said. “It also expanded my view of health as I learned about the social determinants of health and how factors like system infrastructure, housing and the economy all have an impact.” 

While at York, Tesfaye also began working in residences, first at the front desk and later as a don. She loved her experiences there and discovered that her health studies were also applicable to mental health, which interested her. She also realized the importance of community and was drawn to community building. During her first year, for example, she was very involved with Multicultural Week, an event that brought diverse students together to showcase their cultures’ food, fashion, dance and sports.  

“It was so wonderful to be engaged in that and learn about lots of different cultures and ways of being and living,” she said. 

She also started volunteering off campus in an organization working to provide culturally specific mental health programming. 

When the pandemic lockdown hit, Tesfaye was living and working in residence and being part of a community made the challenges easier. 

“I was really grateful to be here during that shift,” Tesfaye said. “Leaders and professors took that time to think about the types of leaders/teachers they wanted to be and I saw a shift to more empathy, collaboration and kindness. It inspired me to be a leader, seeing that you can be a kind leader without compromising the quality of your leadership.” 


Tesfaye also explored the research aspect of health at the urging of one of her mentors, assistant professor Oghenowede Eyawo, who urged her to get involved in research and learn more about global health outside the classroom. As a specialist in Global eHealth, she began working with Professor Lora Appel to see how virtual reality tools could help patients with dementia, stroke or acquired brain injury complete tasks of everyday living more easily.  

“Dr. Eyawo and Dr. Appel both believed in me, helped my confidence, and gave me opportunities to learn and grow both in and out of the classroom. I would not have been able to make it without them!” she said. “I am also very thankful for my family’s support.” 

Now that she has graduated, Tesfaye will be working as a residence life co-ordinator at York. 

“I’m excited to be working in residence life and continuing to be at York,” she said. “This role gives me a chance to explore further what my passions are by taking a step back. I’ve been excited to see how community building ties in with health promotion. Whatever I decide to pursue afterward will be centred around community building and global health.”