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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Arsema Berhane

Photo by Ohana Sarvotham.

By Millie Peck

Arsema Berhane `22 is known around Grinnell College’s campus as an incredibly talented slam poet. Less known is her success as a top 10 all time performer as a thrower on the track and field team, her fierce love for her cat, Venus, and her five plant babies: Hosana, Pasta, Peanut, Prosecco and Palm. Her family is from Eritrea, but she grew up in Kansas City, which is where she started her career as a poet and explored her identity as an athlete.

The summer after her sophomore year of high school, Berhane started taking martial arts classes, which she later described as the most rigorous training she had ever done. When she arrived at Grinnell, she discovered stress fractures in her wrists and continues to have pain from getting continually kicked in the shins, but her training gave her the confidence to feel that she can always defend herself.

According to Berhane, what she loved most about martial arts was, “Punching and getting punched back. I liked punching people in the face a lot, it was really fun,” she said.

Berhane also ran track in high school, but always felt slow.

“I was that girl who people were cheering for like ‘you got this’ so that they could get out of there. And the coaches were like, ‘I know you can run faster than this,’” she said.

Berhane wanted to change this, so during her second year at Grinnell she signed up for a P.E. class called “Speed Training.” Unknown to her, that class was just fall track. She was the only person in the class not on the team, so Coach Pederson encouraged her to join.

She was hesitant because of the time commitment and because she didn’t feel fast or strong. Her friends told her to go lift weights. So, she did. Track became one of Berhane’s favorite parts of Grinnell.

Berhane did not like Grinnell at first. She was matched to Grinnell through QuestBridge, and the college advertised itself as extremely diverse. However, when she arrived, she discovered that most of the diversity lay in the international student population, resulting in a very small Black student population. During her first year, she heard a boy spewing racist comments and went to bed afraid, knowing he was sleeping just two floors below her.

Berhane will be the only Black woman graduating with a degree in computer science this year, the largest major on campus. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Berhane felt a lot of her fellow Grinnellians failed to support her and other Black students.

“I saw a lot of people posting infographics and not doing any other work to further inform themselves of what they can do. Like what are you doing? Are you marching? Are you actively checking in with your people and making sure they’re okay? How can you take this and apply it to your day to day life? What biases do you have to address? How can you be an ally outside of social media?”

Berhane said that although she wasn’t happy to have her classes online during the 2020-2021 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn’t necessarily miss being in person. Being on campus exhausted her. Fortunately, she doesn’t feel that way anymore.

“Track is probably the reason why I feel like I kind of belong on campus. You have a sacred place to just exist, which is really refreshing,” Berhane explained.

Berhane recalled how after an altercation at a party, many of her teammates stood by her side and made sure she was okay.

“I feel like that was one of the first times I have felt safe and really protected as a Black woman. It was just a sweet, heartwarming moment to realize that people really do care about me,” she said. “It was one of the first times I have felt extremely protected, and that’s not something that happens back home.”

Throughout all her difficulties and experiences here at Grinnell, Berhane has always relied on poetry as an outlet. In high school, she competed in slam poetry competitions and has already become successful enough to perform at paid gigs back home. She continued to perform at Grinnell, hosting open mics monthly throughout her senior year and winning seven Grinnell writing awards for her poetry.

“I feel like my best poems just come to me, and I’m just like, ‘alright, I got to write it down.’ I pull out the Notes app, and then it will all come to me in a few hours,” she said. “Like in the shower a lot, in the restroom at night, I don’t know why. Or if I am reading poetry or looking at pictures. A lot of my poems come from just really intense emotions and just trying to process it.”

Berhane isn’t positive what her plans are after graduation, but before starting a job or traveling the world, she wants to finish her book of poems, which she plans to call “Dreaming of Jupiter.”

“I’m a Sagittarius and Jupiter is the planet of Sagittarius. But it’s also the biggest planet in the solar system. I’m dreaming of good things. I’m dreaming of big things and bigger opportunities. And it seems like a beautiful thing.”


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