Michael Tadesse-Bell leaves USF after 17 years
Julian E.J. Sorapuru
Virtual gatherings may be our new normal, but there was nothing routine about Michael Tadesse-Bell’s farewell Zoom call. Though the shift to online life has, at times, left us deprived of genuine human interaction, the space was filled with people — about 60 attendees — and emotion, both bitter and sweet. Many who spoke found it difficult to say goodbye to a man who has been so influential throughout his nearly two decades on the Hilltop as a student, alumni, and employee. But for every tear shed over his departure, there were countless smiles, laughs, and anecdotes, which expressed overwhelming gratitude and praise for Tadesse-Bell.
Toward the end, Tadesse-Bell himself took center stage. Choking up between sentences, he said, “It really has just been an honor making life-changing friendships amongst all of you […] It’s difficult just not being able to embrace you all like I want to and say ‘thank you’ for your friendship and for believing in me. But as many of you said, USF is home, it’s in my blood.”
As the chat swelled with messages of support and well-wishes, the event ended as it began: with music, something Tadesse-Bell holds dear in life — so dear, in fact, that the USF community made a Spotify playlist to pay tribute to his time at the University. “Before I Let Go” was the song of choice, opening with Beyonce’s cover of the hit and closing with Frankie Beverly and Maze’s 1981 classic. It was fitting that as Tadesse-Bell said goodbye to his “home,” his sendoff started and concluded with two different renditions of a beloved song, just as his USF career began and ended with two renditions of the same, beloved man.
After 17 years, Michael Tadesse-Bell has left USF to join the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as an associate program officer on their post-secondary education team. His final day of work in his latest role as assistant dean of retention and persistence programs was Nov. 20. It marked the conclusion of a chapter in Tadesse-Bell’s life which saw his role at USF change, but never his values or mission.
Tadesse-Bell first set foot on the Hilltop in 2003 as a senior in high school. According to Tadesse-Bell, “[USF] wasn’t on my radar at all” until one of his high school teachers, Scott Santa Rosa, a Jesuit priest, suggested that he consider the university. Santa Rosa organized a visit to USF for Tadesse-Bell which included a meeting with then-University President Stephen Privett.
Tadesse-Bell remembers experiencing a sense of culture shock while in Privett’s office, which had a view of the San Francisco skyline. Tadesse-Bell said the whole experience was “a bit baffling” for a teenager who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles in the 90s, an area which, at the time, was notorious for its high rates of crime, unemployment, and poverty. Tadesse-Bell said this meeting with Privett, and the rest of his visit as a whole, which also included meetings with the dean of the law school, the multicultural recruitment and retention officer, and the coaching staff of the men’s basketball team, made him feel “desired” at USF.
Privett, who is currently the president of Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles (coincidentally the same school Tadesse-Bell graduated from), remembers their interaction that day well. “He came across immediately as kind of soft-spoken, but confident, and you kind of picked up that this kid had a lot of integrity. And so I said, ‘Great, we would love to have you.’”
Tadesse-Bell said he remembers “praying the whole time” as he was walking around campus. “I felt, my last day at that visit, that God said, ‘Michael, this is where I want you to be,’” he said. After being accepted to every college he applied to, he remembers thinking, “[Attending USF] is what God wants me to do. Why would I wait?”
With his decision to attend USF, Tadesse-Bell became the first, and only, one of his seven biological siblings whom he grew up with to go to college. “That’s significant because my mom really pushed education to us,” he said. Like many other first-generation college students of color at USF, Tadesse-Bell attended the Foreword Program (today known as the Muscat Scholars Program). Tadesse-Bell said, “That program ended up being absolutely everything I needed. It provided me with the foundation and understanding of what the demands of college would be in a hyper manner because it was this two week crash course into college courses, into late night study groups, into the demands from professors, the homesickness of being away from family, the building and nurturing of relationships, some of whom are still very dear friends, like my roommate.”
That roommate was Jeremiah Williams ‘08, who said the two men became quick friends because they shared many of the same experiences. Both grew up in single-parent households, taking on the role of “the man of the house” to set good examples for their younger brothers. They were also both walk-ons to the USF men’s basketball team and the first in their families to go to college. “We just had so much that was relatable, it made our relationship so strong, and even to this day, to still be in each other’s lives,” said Williams, who was a groomsman in Tadesse-Bell’s wedding.
Williams attests that Tadesse-Bell was more than a friend, but also someone he could look up to. “[Michael] was very inspirational, just his push to want to do better, to want to be a person that folks respect and love,” he said. “I feel like that also helped me even make it through because I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s a good dude right there. I want to be like that, too. I want people to respect me, and when they think of me, they think positive things.’”
The perception of others was something Tadesse-Bell kept in mind while at USF. He was one of very few Black male students attending the University during his undergraduate years, which he said meant he “walked around campus, kind of as a unicorn.” Tadesse-Bell said he intentionally did not tell anyone that he was on the basketball team his first semester in order to avoid being stereotyped as “a jock.”
But it was not just students Tadesse-Bell had to worry about stereotyping him. “Not all of the professors, but too many of the white professors, would ultimately, immediately assume that I was a student athlete who was not going to take their class seriously. Obviously, [that is] the exact opposite of who I was,” he said. “I wanted to leverage my education as much as I possibly could in order to finish school and provide myself the foundation that was necessary in order to move my family out of the poverty that we have been in for decades.”
One specific interaction with a professor has stuck with Tadesse-Bell to this day. He said that whenever an issue that pertained to Black people would come up in this professor’s class, there would be a “staredown,” and he’d ask, “Michael, what do you think?” Tadesse-Bell said that experience was “difficult to process” as a young man.
After talking to Williams about it, who was also in the class (and was the only other Black man Tadesse-Bell ever had a class with during his undergraduate career at USF), he resolved that he’d speak up about it if it happened again. It did, and Tadesse-Bell remembers being nervous that day: his stomach was turning and he felt like he had a frog in his throat. Despite this, he remembers saying, “I would prefer that you not ask me to speak for all Black people. I don’t have the bandwidth to do that.” He said his entire class was shocked, whispers followed, and his professor’s face turned red as he quickly apologized for making Tadesse-Bell uncomfortable.
“It was experiences like that that led me to realize how isolating my experience was and how isolating it must have been for my peers,” Tadesse-Bell said. “You fast forward and you see these are things that I’m trying to help resolve within our institution. That faculty would be more mindful, more empathetic, more conscientious of engaging students, and particularly Black-identified students, in a manner that is inclusive and doesn’t put them on an island.”
Tadesse-Bell’s words speak to what Interim Vice Provost Tyrone Cannon called “a passion for paying it forward” among African-Americans working in higher education. Cannon, who has mentored Tadesse-Bell as he currently pursues his doctorate in education at USF, said, “I think at USF, [Michael] has paid it forward on almost a daily basis, in terms of his interaction with students.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s in business administration in 2007, Tadesse-Bell spent a year away from the University pursuing a career in law, but soon realized law wasn’t his passion. Consequently, he returned “home” to the Hilltop and sought out the advice of Charlene Lobo Soriano, whom he called “the most influential person” in his life at USF.
Lobo Soriano had known Tadesse-Bell since his freshman year through her role as the Foreward Program’s director. “I think everyone needs this one person that stands behind their vision for who they are and what they want to accomplish in life. And I try to figure out what that is, and how I fit into that with [my students],” Lobo Soriano said. According to her, she and Tadesse-Bell developed such a deep relationship because of his openness and vulnerability around sharing his goals and aspirations with her.
Tadesse-Bell said when the two spoke about potential next steps for him, “What eventually came out of that was, I always had this desire to help and to be of support.” This, coupled with the thought that USF had been the place where Tadesse-Bell had “seen the most growth and maturation,” led him to take a job as an academic support coordinator for student-athletes at the University. A year later he enrolled in USF’s master’s in sport management program, which he completed in 2010, becoming a “Double Don,” someone who has earned both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees from USF.
“I was just thinking about my own experience, what struggles I had as a student athlete and how it never felt as though the athletic department as a whole was preparing us for what would be once we became people, and not student-athletes,” Tadesse-Bell said. “And so I made it a point when I came back to the institution to start that work to help student-athletes prepare themselves; leverage the many skill sets that they develop over their collegiate careers as athletes and students.”
Tadesse-Bell’s four years of work with students-athletes from 2008 to 2012 led him to be tapped as one of the founding members of the Center for Academic and Student Achievement (CASA) at USF. Here, he took on the role of academic success coach, which Tadesse-Bell said was created so that students would have a central figure throughout their college career who could serve as a connector to the rest of the institution for them.
This new position allowed him to connect with more students, and consequently, expand the reach of his mission to make education more equitable for low-income students of color. Particularly, Tadesse-Bell was troubled when he discovered how low the graduation and retention rates of male students of color were at the University. He started the PACT program to combat this. The name PACT was formally an acronym, but today “represents the pact that people make to hold each other accountable to achieve their goals,” according to Tadesse-Bell. PACT started as a peer mentoring program for male-identifying students of color in 2015. By 2018, it had evolved to also include female and non-binary students of color “after realizing that other students of color face similar and different challenges,” Tadesse-Bell said.
Kailyn Goodwin, a junior biology major, has been a part of PACT since her freshman year, during which she attended every PACT event. “Being in PACT helped open up a lot of opportunities for me because Michael would be like, ‘Oh, I think you’d be good at this,’” she said. “He really kept pushing me and just he saw so much potential in me, which helped me see potential in myself.” Today, Goodwin works for the PACT program as an accountability partner (AP), mentoring freshmen in the program.
Last semester, Goodwin applied to be a Black Student Orientation (BSO) intern. Tadesse-Bell also heads BSO in addition to PACT, so after Goodwin landed the job, Tadesse-Bell became her boss for two different projects this summer.
Aniah Francis, a junior sociology major, was also an AP and BSO intern this summer. Francis said Goodwin, Tadesse-Bell, and herself would see each other on Zoom meetings frequently, up to three times a week. Francis said the work they shared, coupled with this summer’s reckonings around race spurred by police killings of Black people, caused the trio to grow very close and form a relationship “built on love and family.”
Francis, Tadesse-Bell, and Goodwin would often stay on Zoom calls together after the rest of their colleagues logged off in order to check in with one another. “I think those [check-ins] were definitely helpful, as far as grounding one another because sometimes, you didn’t want to log on to Zoom, and sometimes you didn’t want to go to that meeting or that training,” Goodwin said. She said both Francis and Tadesse-Bell were “extremely helpful” in helping her reground herself in the work they were doing because it was comforting to have other Black people who were “feeling the same.” Francis said those check-ins “ended up becoming one of my favorite times of the day.”
Despite his many accomplishments at USF, perhaps his most impactful achievement is the role he has played in bringing the Black Achievement Success and Engagement (BASE) initiative to fruition.
Tadesse-Bell was the faculty advisor to the Black Student Union in 2015 when they issued a list of demands to the University administration, among them a call for more Black faculty and staff and the creation of a Black Living Learning Community. The University ultimately responded to these demands with the creation of the BASE initiative. Tadesse-Bell was part of the initial BASE steering committee which, according to him, identified the “cracks in the system that we thought led to Black-identified students not being supported.” After a year on the steering committee, Tadesse-Bell was hand-picked by Candice Harrison, the faculty director of BASE, to serve as the initiative’s program manager.
“I knew leading up to [the creation of BASE] that I wanted him to be the copilot because we were so different,” Harrison said. “Because of Michael, I slowed down and really appreciated the kind of energy that it takes to truly pour love into students, to mentor students in a way that I wasn’t doing as a faculty member. I thought I was doing it, but this was totally different work.”
Harrison emphasized that not only was the work different, it was hard. Both Harrison, who is also a history professor, and Tadesse-Bell essentially worked two jobs within the University at that time. Harrison said she was especially amazed by Tadesse-Bell’s work ethic, given that he is also raising a young son and pursuing his doctorate. “That work can only come from a place of pure love and a commitment to our folk. You cannot manufacture that,” she said.
Despite the extraordinary workload of his position, Harrison said Tadesse-Bell never wavered.
Tadesse-Bell’s leadership in the BASE initiative has made him one of the most recognizable people on campus. Golden Venters, director of organization leadership for the Division of Student Life at USF, described him as “the face of BASE.”
“[Michael] is absolutely one of the key opening faces of USF that many of our students, particularly our African American-identified students, meet and see,” said Venters, who has mentored Tadesse-Bell since his days as an undergraduate. Venters said when walking across campus with Tadesse-Bell, “You swear, every single Black student on campus knows who Michael is. He can’t take two steps without the ‘Hey, what’s up?’ And you know, it’s a very genuine ‘Hello.’ I think [he] definitely [has] impact and a presence that makes folks feel welcome, that this is someplace they belong, and also encouraging them to bring their best.”
The next generation of Black students at USF will have to navigate campus life without Tadesse-Bell’s presence, a feat Aniah Francis said is hard to imagine. Tadesse-Bell called his decision to leave “a sensitive topic.” When asked why he made that decision, Tadesse-Bell took a long pause and ultimately explained, “It’s really about family.”
“I think about my dad not being a part of my life on a regular basis, as I think about my siblings, and what potentially could be for them, but what has not been, as I think about just the desire for me to raise my little one, and potentially future little ones, around family. Those things are extremely important,” said Tadesse-Bell, who, at age 36, moved to Washington state a few months ago to be closer to his wife’s family.
For Tadesse-Bell, the move is also a professionally ambitious one. “As I look at education, and specifically higher ed, I’ve just realized that I can only do so much at USF about solving the issues that higher ed is facing across the country,” he said, later adding that he asked himself, “How can I be a part of the larger solution?”
At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Tadesse-Bell will work to identify and invest in higher education institutions and organizations that are “transforming higher ed as a whole, specifically with first generation, low-income, and students of color in mind,” Tadesse-Bell said. He called the opportunity to combat the issues he has worked on throughout his entire USF career on a national scale “humbling.”
Harrison said she is “thrilled” for Tadesse-Bell’s next step, but emphasized that he will be nearly impossible to replace. “We lose somebody who genuinely embodied the values and mission of USF in every way,” she said, joking that USF should make T-shirts with Tadesse-Bell’s face on them. “Michael is such a testament to what a USF education can do. He just has embraced this place so fully, and the work, and all of its components just to the core. There’s nobody who does this better, I think, than he does. So to me, you lose the best representative of USF in its totality.”
Cannon echoed this sentiment. “I think we’re losing a very, very strong advocate for everything that the University stands for. As a kind of a broad summation, he has demonstrated both as a graduate of the University, but also as a staff person, the value of a strong Jesuit education, lifelong learning, and caring for the whole person. And so we will miss a very strong, positive personification of all that we talk about, you know. He’s lived it.”
Michael Tadesse-Bell is a man who was undoubtedly shaped by USF, but he has also irreversibly shaped it. His impact was immense and his capacity for love was awe-inspiring. Perhaps Lobo Soriano summed his impact up best when she said, “He leaves this place, making us want to be just like him.”
Editor’s Note: Michael Tadesse-Bell was writer Julian E.J. Sorapuru’s Center for Academic and Student Achievement coach.