Whether Kenna Tasissa was interacting with students through her student-teaching position at Charles E. Jordan High School, helping classmates in a study group or watching movies with friends, she brought her inquisitive mind, compassion for others and profound empathy.
“Kenna was a warm, gentle soul with a captivating smile. She was loved by her professors, mentors, and classmates, and was admired for her ambition and diligent preparation towards her teaching career,” Tasissa’s family wrote in a statement to The Chronicle.
Tasissa, who died unexpectedly Jan. 21, was a sociology major in the Class of 2021 from Cary, N.C. She was born on Oct. 21, 1999 in Raleigh, to parents Tigist Gesessee and Gudaye Tasissa, and she is survived by her mother, father, brother, sisters and several other members of her extended family.
Tasissa was enrolled in the Secondary Teacher Preparation Program in the Program in Education at Duke and hoped to become a high school social studies teacher after graduation. She was also working to earn a certificate in markets and management.
Brian McDonald, an adjunct professor in the program in education and a social studies teacher at Jordan High School in Durham, taught Kenna during the fall 2020 semester in a 12-person seminar specifically for students in the secondary education program. He remembers Kenna as engaging and modest, and felt confident that she had the potential to become a wonderful teacher.
“She was amazing. Just a hundred percent amazing. She was thoughtful, engaging. She was quiet, and I mean that as a compliment. When she said something, it was thoughtful, and it contributed to the dialogue,” McDonald said.
McDonald said that he was in contact with a teacher Tasissa worked with during the fall semester. Tasissa’s mentor teacher, according to McDonald, “raved about her,” stressing her organized nature, attention to detail and ability to form connections with students that the teacher himself hadn’t yet been able to reach in a meaningful way.
“Early on, she was a rockstar, but you knew she was going to continue to be a rockstar in the classroom, given her ability to connect with students,” McDonald said.
In addition to her dedication to teaching, Tasissa’s close friends remember her for her fierce loyalty, quiet presence and ability to truly listen to others.
“Kenna was sweet, someone who was there through the ups and downs of the first year of college. She was loyal, hardworking, and honest,” wrote senior Lillian Needam, Tasissa’s first-year roommate, in an email to The Chronicle.
Senior Adaora Nwosu, Tasissa’s former roommate, added that “Kenna was so kind. She had this amazing understanding of empathy, like nobody else I’ve ever met. And she was very intelligent, very inquisitive.”
“Kenna was just such a great person to talk to. Her company was just amazing. She really did become my truest confidante,” Nwosu said.
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Both Nwosu and Needam recalled fond memories of their time with Tasissa, from the East Campus carnival on their first night at Duke to cold nights tenting in K-ville.
“Even more than the big events, I will cherish the smaller moments. Sitting outside the Chapel late at night with friends. Having movie nights in our room or in the common room. The many lunches, dinners, and late-night ice cream breaks we shared. All of these moments have helped shaped my college experience and Kenna definitely played a role in that,” Needam wrote.
Tasissa loved watching movies, listening to 2000s pop music and reading books, Nwosu said, and she was also knowledgeable about celebrities and pop culture.
She also had a big sweet tooth, her loved ones remembered, and loved chocolate and Coca-Cola.
“Kenna loved puzzles and trivia games, often competing with her sister Hawi and cousin Siddisee. She was known for her particular tastes in food, such as combining ramen with her mom’s tibs (an Ethiopian beef dish), or enjoying her Aunt Hanna’s spaghetti. She famously had a sweet tooth, and could finish a can of soda in one sitting,” Tasissa’s family wrote.
Susan Wynn, associate professor of the practice of education and director of the Secondary Teacher Preparation Program, wrote in an email that she was “so impressed with [Tasissa’s] bright intelligence, compassionate spirit, organized soul, and beautiful smile.”
“She was quiet, but it was easy to envision how she would shine in a history classroom with high school students. We mourn alongside her parents as we continue to wrestle with the incredible loss of this enormously talented young person,” Wynn wrote.
Tasissa was buried at Raleigh Memorial Park on Jan. 24. In honor of her love of helping others, her family has worked together to open the Kenna Guda Tasissa Foundation.