Graduate Institute Student Spotlight: Yonas Ketsela (AGI24)

May 7, 2024 | By Shirley Quo (AGI25) and Kirstin Fawcett

Since 1967, the St. John’s College Graduate Institute has welcomed individuals from all walks of life, united in their quest to learn from history’s most influential writers, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. Spring 2024 was one for the books, with 118 scholars enrolled in the Annapolis program and 87 in Santa Fe; together, they comprise the GI’s largest headcount in decades. Among their ranks are teachers and lawyers, artists and musicians, retired professionals and investment bankers, part-time and full-time students. Some live and work nearby; others come from far away or do the program remotely through the Low-Residency Program. 

Yonas Ketsela (AGI24) Photo credit: Shirley Quo 

In our Graduate Institute Student Spotlight, we profile cohort members in Annapolis and Santa Fe. By highlighting their wide-ranging interests and backgrounds, we show that just like there is no one-size-fits-all analysis of a great book, there’s no one-size-fits-all GI student.

Scholars across millennia have turned to nature while contemplating life’s biggest questions. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Yonas Ketsela (AGI24) decided to pursue his own passion for philosophy—a far cry from his original pre-med track—while living in the mountains of southern Oregon as a college student.

Ketsela, who currently works as a registered nurse, will graduate from the Annapolis GI program this spring. He came to St. John’s after learning about the Program while participating in the interdisciplinary Oregon Extension college semester program during his junior year at Virginia’s Eastern Mennonite University. Spending an entire fall semester deep in the wilderness, analyzing classic texts that raised reflections on spirituality, virtue, and leading a well-lived life, proved transformative for Ketsela—so much so that when a a professor there informed him that a “Great Books” school existed with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, he briefly contemplated transferring and restarting college from scratch.

“Wow, there is a whole world of people who just think and write about these beautiful things,” Ketsela recalls thinking. “That was fascinating to me and led me to reconsider what I wanted to do in the future.”

Ketsela wound up staying at Eastern Mennonite University and switching his major to nursing, opting to pursue graduate studies at St. John’s while working flexible hours at hospitals in Virginia and Maryland. Until that point, he had pursued a STEM track, thinking that medicine would be a practical career choice for supporting himself and family members back in his home country of Ethiopia. Now, as he wraps up his Master of Arts in Liberal Arts (MALA) degree, he is working on an M.A. essay on Schopenhauer while applying for philosophy PhDs, with hopes of someday becoming a college professor.

Though Ketsela’s main passion is philosophy, he is also a newfound advocate for the liberal arts after completing nearly every Program segment and two semester-long preceptorials in ancient Greek, among other elective courses. “Part of the reason why I wanted to come to the United States [when I was 17] was to get a better education,” says Ketsela. “The kind of education I always sought was more philosophical, more in-depth” than what had been previously offered to him in Ethiopia. And even at many American institutions of higher learning, he adds, seemingly open-ended fields like philosophy are constrained by specialization. “If you’re [an academic] focusing on metaphysics,” Ketsela notes, “it’s solely metaphysics.”

Ketsela’s gateway philosophers were Plato and Aristotle, thanks to a Philosophy 101 course he took during his sophomore year. By the time he arrived at St. John’s he was fully immersed in German Idealism and formed a GI study group centered on it. To his surprise, however, the MALA history segment wound up being his favorite; contemplating the philosophical implications of history—how it’s made, the truths it carries, and its social consequences—helped bring his interdisciplinary liberal arts journey full circle.

So, too, did the Program’s discussion-based learning style. “I always knew I wanted to work with people,” says Ketsela. Now, his work occurs not just in a hospital unit, but at a seminar table.