Paying It Forward
A CISE Scholar’s Journey of Gratitude
Meet Bitanya Derese, a CISE alumna with a remarkable story of resilience and determination. Born in Ethiopia, the Derese family immigrated to the United States in 2007 with dreams of a better life. America was not just a new home, it was a land of opportunities. As an immigrant and a child of non-English-speaking parents, Bitanya faced many challenges. She recalls, “A lot of responsibility was attached to that. I had to serve as a translator for my parents and deal with many things that a kid wouldn’t know what to do with. I think that’s part of what made me so driven and independent today.”
The family settled in Cincinnati and Bitanya’s educational journey began at Holy Family Elementary, a CISE-supported school in Price Hill. Holy Family became a vital support system during the family’s early days in Cincinnati. More than just a school, the staff demonstrated genuine concern for the family’s well-being, including a dedicated secretary who even helped them find affordable housing.
At Holy Family, Bitanya received a CISE high school scholarship that enabled her to attend Seton High School. She thrived both academically and socially; actively participating in Hope Squad, a suicide prevention group, serving as a student ambassador and joining the diversity and inclusion club. Reflecting on her time at Holy Family and Seton, Bitanya expressed gratitude, “I’m really grateful that I got to go to a private school; it definitely set me up for success in life. Private Catholic education was not in my family’s budget at all. I also really appreciated the Catholic aspect of it. I am religious myself and the fact that I could take religion classes helped me to grow stronger in my faith.”
During her sophomore year, the Derese family visited their home village in Ethiopia, and Bitanya was deeply moved by the poverty she saw there. “The kids barely had anything,” she said. “They didn’t even know if they were going to eat the next day, but they were still joyful, happy kids. I realized how much we take for granted here.” This experience motivated Bitayna to take action. She began raising money for the cause, and with the guidance of her high school advocate, Jenny Jenkins, she created The Grateful Foundation, a nonprofit that helps the children of her village receive the basic supplies needed. “She’s a remarkable kid; the family has had some struggles along the way, but she’s very strong,” Jenkins reflects. “When she was at Seton, she organized out-of-uniform days and different fundraisers to collect money for the community in Ethiopia; she continues to work.” Through The Grateful Foundation, Bitanya has been able to raise thousands of dollars for the children in Ethiopia.
These days, you can find Bitanya attending the University of Cincinnati, where she is a 2nd-year honors student at Lindner Business School, studying marketing. She received the prestigious Cincinnatus Presidential Scholarship, awarded to only 10 students per year, covering full tuition, room and board, and books. “If you had told me in 7th grade at Holy Family that I would get a full-ride scholarship to college and have all of this, I would’ve been like ‘no way!’” Bitanya shares, “I think God placed this in my life on purpose. I think utilizing what falls in your lap and being appreciative is the thing that gets you far in life.” While marketing is her academic focus, Bitanya’s commitment to The Grateful Foundation remains a priority as she continues to raise money for the children of Ethiopia today.
When asked what drives her, Bitanya responds, “It’s my parents. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to sacrifice my whole life, getting up and moving to another country where you don’t even know the language. Just knowing that I’m making these milestones, getting scholarships, and really working for myself, I think it’s worth it for them. Their sacrifice is meaningful, I am actually utilizing what they came here to give me.”
Bitanya’s story embodies the spirit of paying it forward. From humble beginnings in Ethiopia to multiple-scholarship recipient to creating opportunities for others, her journey demonstrates the transformative power of education, faith, and working to make a difference. It reminds us that the greatest blessings come from being a source of blessings to others.