The man who came back

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Patrick Awuah tells Katie Jacobs why he returned to his home country to build a better future

A young man grows up in a poverty-stricken African country, dreaming of a future far away from a corrupt and repressive regime. He shows promise as an engineer and is offered the chance to study in the West, eventually landing a job in one of the world’s largest corporations. Patrick Awrah’s story is far from unique. Countless Africans have left the continent for better opportunities elsewhere. Many have earned their fortune and supported good causes in their homeland; many more are part of the vast African diaspora sending what money they can back to villages and towns across the continent.

What’s different about Awuah, however, is that he gave up a comfortable existence and a promising career and came back, determined to drive change through education. And in a quiet suburb of his home city the Ghanaian capital, Accra his dream is today a remarkable reality.

Awuah believed a private liberal arts college could educate Ghana’s future leaders in more than just book smarts. Funded by his savings from a flourishing career at Microsoft, and a number of private individuals and organizations, Ashesi University opened its doors in 2002. Today, it is one of the most forward-looking such institutions in Africa. And its president has become a poster child for the continent’s educational rebirth.

My mission is to educate a new generation of ethical leaders in Africa. Ethics, empathy and compassion are crucial for the next teacher-leaders of this continent says the 46-year-old. Launched with a class of 30 students, Ashesi (which means beginning in the local language, Akan) has grown organically to bring that vision to fruition. It now has more than 460 undergraduates, and by requiring students to take modules in several subjects, following the US model, offers a broader perspective than other local universities. The idea is to expand students worldview, explains Awuah. Alongside courses in literature, philosophy, economics and so on, the core curriculum includes leadership seminars which explore the challenges leaders need to overcome and what constitutes good leadership.

Softly spoken yet commanding and endlessly passionate, Awuah seems a perfect embodiment of those ideals. He was affected deeply by his time as a scholarship student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, he says: In Ghana it was all about learning by rote. In the USA, it was more analytical and the faculty wanted to hear what students thought. It was more reading than I’d ever done, and I was having to connect the dots. It was challenging, but more than that, it was fun. 

After graduating with a degree in engineering, Awuah took a job with software giant Microsoft in Seattle. A year into the role, he visited Ghana. My original plan had been to get some experience and then go back, but I was so disillusioned by what I saw, he says. There was still a military government. The infrastructure still didn’t work.

I just couldn’t see myself stepping away from the intensity and excitement of a high-tech industry to come back to a place where people were afraid to criticize the government. So I decided not to.

Fortunately for Ghana, Awuah changed his mind. When my son was born, I started to worry a lot more about Africa. There was a lot of bad news coming out of the continent anarchy in Somalia, genocide in Rwanda. It bothered me what the new generation would see when they looked back at their roots. I felt I needed to work towards a solution

Ashesi could be part of that solution. Like many African countries, Ghana faces major educational challenges. Despite boasting one of the highest GDPs in Africa a legacy of a thriving export market in cocoa and minerals, as well as a political situation that has been markedly stable for a number of years it has an adult literacy rate of just 65 per cent. Awuah was lucky enough to have the kind of parents who cared about education, but for many of the 25 million other Ghanaians, it is a different story. According to UNICEF, just over 40 per cent of children attend secondary school and Awuah says only 5 per cent go on to further education.

There are problems with equability he says. The poorest children go to public schools with low performance levels. They then have difficulty getting into secondary schools and colleges With more than one in three Ghanaians aged under 14 following a population explosion over the last two decades, it is clear something has to be done.

Financial aid is a vital lubricant in the process. Ashesi students are selected on merit and 90 per cent are Ghanaian. They pay anything from US$10 to almost US$6,000 a year, depending on their background. Education is supposed to level the playing field says Awuah. The most important discussion that happens on this campus is the one about what good African society should be. That is a lot more interesting if you have rich and poor, men and women, different ethnicities, different religions. It reflects the diversity of Africa. Ashesi students often become a lifeline. One graduate from a family of subsistence farmers now works in the financial sector. He was the first person in his village to go to college says Awuah. Initially, his family didn’t think it was a good idea. Now he’s paying the school fees for his siblings who see how well he’s done and want to follow in his footsteps Awuah is rightly proud of his alumni, who tend to find work within six months of graduating. Crucially, more than 90 per cent stay in Africa, fighting a devastating brain drain. Having taken part in Ashes is mandatory community service, they feel connected to their country. It’s part of our mission to nurture empathy and show students they can find solutions says Awuah. We give them the confidence to be a force for good in their society.

Many Ashesi students are IB alumni, he says. They are often among the top. A lot of the things that Ashesi aspires to are built into the IB, and IB students definitely stand out 

Whatever their background, graduates such as Ashesis are the incubators of an Africa with better governance and more self-sufficient industry. As Awuah says: We’re not only enhancing people’s intellect, we’re affecting their characters