Breaking down barriers

Gashaye Melaku Tefera is creating pathways to health care and making an impact on campus.

Gashaye Melaku Tefera
Gashaye Melaku Tefera

April 25, 2023
Contact: Deidra Ashley,
Photos courtesy Gashaye Melaku Tefera

The University of Missouri is known across the world for its cutting-edge research — so much so that after earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in his home country of Ethiopia and completing a second master’s program throughout Europe, School of Health Professions and Graduate School student Gashaye Melaku Tefera chose Mizzou to continue his research.

“My research centers around social justice and equity of health and social services among underserved and vulnerable populations, particularly immigrants and refugees,” Tefera said. “When I was applying for Ph.D. programs, I was looking for a university with a good research reputation and opportunities to collaborate. That’s how I knew Mizzou was the place for me to continue my research.”

Breaking it down

For his doctoral dissertation, Tefera focused his research on Ethiopian immigrant women and the challenges they face in the American health care system. He chose this demographic due to African immigrant women being the least-studied group of immigrants and most likely to suffer from a double layer of discrimination for being immigrant and black, adding to the already complex healthcare needs of women.

“My research is inspired by my own experiences having difficulties navigating the American health care system,” Tefera said. “Given my academic background and literacy level, I assumed I wouldn’t have had much difficulty, yet I did. I then reviewed and analyzed existing literature that supported my interest with objective evidence and led me to my dissertation project. This research will hopefully lead to policy change and help alleviate some of the barriers immigrants and refugees face.”

Tefera’s research is qualitative, meaning it gathers and analyzes participants’ lived experiences, perceptions and perspectives instead of numerical data. Part of it involved speaking with Ethiopian immigrant women in varying academic and legal statuses about their experiences. The interviews were transcribed and coded, so the main themes could be identified from the raw data. Tefera said four major themes emerged: the participants’ overall perception of the U.S. healthcare system, personal barriers, structural barriers and facilitators of access to healthcare.

“There’s not enough information currently out there on my research subject,” Tefera said. “In addition to getting the information, I was really interested in listening to these women’s experiences. Many of them they don’t have a platform to tell their stories.”

Gashaye Melaku Tefera and Mansoo Yu
Tefera and his mentor Mansoo Yu.
Learning and growing

While working closely with his mentors on research and other projects, Tefera has grown close with them.

“Mizzou is a place where there is academic excellence and the right student support system,” said Tefera. “I feel like I have really developed academically and felt personally supported. One of my mentors, Dr. Yu, and I have weekly meetings. He doesn't miss those meetings. He's always there whenever I want to talk.”

Having mentorship has been an impactful part of Tefera’s experience on campus, and his mentors feel just as impacted.

“I’ve served on a lot of PhD dissertation committees over the past 15 years, and Gash is one of the best,” said Professor Mansoo Yu, Tefera’s dissertation chair and mentor. “Gash is extremely passionate about his work and is a very respectable researcher and person.” 

“Gash is one of those students that we all hope we get,” said Assistant Professor Erin Robinson, Tefera’s dissertation committee and mentor, “He’s extremely thoughtful — absorbs everything. He leaves no stone unturned, takes that knowledge and applies it to his work.”

Now, both mentors are looking forward to seeing how their relationships progress as colleagues.

Moving up but going south

Tefera’s hard work and persistence aren’t going unnoticed in the academic world.

He’s already secured a tenure-track assistant professor position — one of the hardest types of teaching jobs to get — in the Florida State University College of Social Work. He will start teaching there this fall.

“I’ve taken really important values from my mentors as professors and from my time here at Mizzou that I will use as I go into my time as a professor,” Tefera said. “I’m looking forward to offering my students the same support I was offered.”  

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