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Building a University, and Hope, in Ghana

After living in the United States for nearly 20 years, Patrick Awuah moved back to his native Ghana, in West Africa, to start a new university in hopes of educating Africa's next generation of leaders. Ashesi -- which means new beginnings -- recently held its first graduation.

Awuah, the 40-year old founder and president of Ashesi University, left Ghana in the mid-1980s, when the country was under military rule. He graduated from Swarthmore College with an engineering degree in 1990. Soon after, he joined Microsoft, moved to Seattle and became a millionaire before he was 30.

"I left Ghana quite idealistic," Awuah says. "I felt that I would get a great education, I would get some expertise, I'd be very needed here and come back. Well, having worked at Microsoft, having lived in the United States for five years, I changed. And I just felt like, if I ever come back here, I lose everything."

This story is part of a series exploring how immigrants in the United States give back to their homelands. Hear other reports and learn more about this series:

But becoming a father made Awuah reconsider moving back to Ghana. "Having a son caused me to reevaluate all my priorities," he says. "This was something that was eating at me. What kind of world is it that my son is going to grow up in? And how is Africa represented in that world?"

That question prompted Awuah, to relocate to Ghana with his American wife, Rebecca, young son, Nana Yaw, and infant daughter, Afia. His goal: to establish an Ivy League-quality university in his home country and train the next generation of African leaders, with a focus on ethical entrepreneurship and integrity. His wife bought into that dream, and the Awuahs invested more than half a million dollars in the Ashesi project.

Awuah still travels to Seattle to fund-raise for Ashesi. He counts some of his former Microsoft colleagues among those -- including private foundations and corporations -- who have contributed to the $4.5 million used to build the university since 1999.

A Unique University in Africa

Ashesi is a private, hi-tech university in a leafy residential suburb of Ghana's capital city, Accra. Its campus and facilities present a stark contrast to Ghana's five public universities. At these government colleges, enrollment has soared to 65,000 since 1990, and overcrowded lecture halls, substandard student residences, rising tuition fees and poor staff salaries have led to angry protests and frequent strikes. However, tuition at public universities is also much cheaper than the $4,500 in fees that Ashesi charges.

Ashesi's latest freshman class has 90 students; its total student population is 220, and its staff is well paid. About 80 percent of the university's students are from Ghana. The rest are from other nations in Africa, a continent where most children don't go beyond elementary or high school, let alone finish college. Awuah says about half the students receive financial aid.

On Dec. 17, four years after enrolling its first crop of freshmen, Ashesi issued its first diplomas to a graduating class of 20 students. Nina Marini, a former graduate school classmate of Awuah's at the University of California at Berkeley, flew in from Seattle for the commencement ceremony. Marini co-founded Ashesi and is one of the university's trustees.

"It's been an incredible journey, coming from something that was in Patrick's mind as a vision, as a dream, and being part of really taking every step with him in terms of realizing it," Marini says.

From Dreams to Action

Ashesi offers two four-year degrees, in computer science and business administration, both of which also emphasize a broad foundation in liberal arts. Derrydean Dadzie, a third-year computer science major, says his time at the university has changed him. "I always say that Ashesi is like going through a goldsmith's place," Dadzie says. "You're like raw gold. The school is like a furnace. The heat from all the courses, from the professors, from the projects that you undertake -- you come out as a refined substance, you come out glittering. You dream beyond your world."

Elizabeth Ohene, Ghana's minister in charge of universities, attended the recent graduation ceremony. She says Awuah is making a valuable contribution to higher education in the country. "One is very grateful for people like Patrick Awuah who have taken up this challenge, and for what he is doing here," she says. "The old way of the state providing tertiary education for everybody who wants to go is obviously not sustainable."

Andrew Tarawali, a graduating senior from Sierra Leone, says attending Ashesi was a turning point. "We've said a lot about how different we are, how we are going to change Africa, how we are the hope," Tarawali says. "The world is going to be watching to see whether the truth was said."

Awuah is proud of his first graduating class, but he still recalls the trepidation with which he first greeted these students four years ago. "The moment that students walked into the gates at Ashesi, my emotions were wild," he says. "I was very excited, but I also wanted to crawl under my desk, because these were human beings, people's kids who had put their lives in my hands, their future careers in my hands. That was scary."

Asked if he would like to see his dream replicated across Africa, Awuah says, "Yes. But I think that dreams that don't go with action are not very useful."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We've been reporting on the ways that immigrants here in America give back to their home countries. Patrick Awuah is a man who essentially gave himself back to his country. After 20 years in the US, he returned to the West African nation of Ghana to start a new university. It's called Ashesi, which means `the beginning.' NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton was there for the first graduation.

Unidentified Teacher: Good morning, everybody.

Group of Students: (In unison) Good morning.

Unidentified Teacher: We are here for a statistics exam, isn't it?

(Soundbite of students murmuring assent)

Unidentified Teacher: Relaxed. Are you relaxed?

(Soundbite of students' voices)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

It's the end of the semester at Ashesi, this new private, high-tech university in the leafy residential suburb of Ghana's capital city, Accra. As the freshman class settles down to a two-hour statistics exam, in another part of the Ashesi campus, 20 excited, soon-to-be graduates are starting a mock graduation.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello. Can everybody put their gowns and their mortar boards on, please? Thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: It's the rehearsal for the real thing, just two days away, and four years after the first 30 students entered the college gates.

(Soundbite of voices)

QUIST-ARCTON: Chatting to students and faculty while issuing instructions to workmen laying down a red carpet is Patrick Awuah, the 40-year-old founder and president of Ashesi University. His slight frame and bespectacled appearance belie his quiet passion and tenacity. Straight out of Swarthmore College with an engineering degree, in 1990, Awuah joined Microsoft, moved to Seattle and became a millionaire before he was 30. He had left Ghana five years earlier under military rule and hadn't been back.

Mr. PATRICK AWUAH (Founder, Ashesi University): I'd left Ghana quite idealistic, but I felt that, you know, I would get a great education, I'd get some expertise, I'd be very needed here and come back. Well, having worked at Microsoft, having lived in the United States for five years, I changed, and I just felt like if I ever come back here, I lose everything.

QUIST-ARCTON: Only when he became a father did Patrick Awuah seriously consider going back to Ghana with his child and his American wife, Rebecca. They met at Microsoft.

Mr. AWUAH: Having a son caused me to re-evaluate all my priorities. This was something that was eating at me. What kind of world is it that my son is going to grow up in? And how is Africa represented in that world?

QUIST-ARCTON: Patrick Awuah's dream was to establish an Ivy League-quality university in his home country and to train the next generation of dynamic African leaders with a focus on ethical entrepreneurship and integrity. His wife bought into that dream and the Awuahs invested more than half a million dollars in the Ashesi project. With their son Nanayaw and infant daughter Efia, they packed up and moved to Ghana, which they now call home. But Awuah still travels to Seattle to fund-raise for Ashesi. He counts some of his former Microsoft colleagues among those, including private foundations and corporations, who have contributed to the $4.5 million that have gone into creating the university since 1999.

Ms. NINA MARINI (Co-founder and Trustee, Ashesi University): Hello. My name is Nina Marini.

QUIST-ARCTON: Nina Marini, a classmate Patrick Awuah met in graduate business school at UC-Berkeley, believed in his mission to go back home and help Ghana. Now the co-founder and a trustee of Ashesi, Marini flew in from Seattle to speak at the commencement ceremony here in Ghana on December 17th.

Ms. MARINI: It's been an incredible journey coming from something that was in Patrick's mind as a vision, as a dream, and being part of really taking every step with him in terms of realizing it.

(Soundbite of a graduation ceremony song)

Commencement Singers: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: `Well done, go forth,' say the words of this Ghanaian song, played at the modest Ashesi graduation where everyone seemed imbued with the university's motto: `scholarship, leadership and citizenship.' Baribean Dadzi(ph) is a third-year computer science major, one of the two four-year degree courses Ashesi University offers. The other is business administration, after a broad liberal arts foundation.

Mr. BARIBEAN DADZI (Student, Ashesi University): I would say that Ashesi's like going through a goldsmith's place. You are like raw gold. The school's like a furnace. The heat from all the courses and everything from the professors from the project that you undertake, you come out as a refined substance. You come out glittering. You move with such quality. You don't think mediocre. You dream beyond your world.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ashesi is in stark contrast to Ghana's five public universities, where enrollment has soared to 65,000 since 1990. Overcrowded lecture halls, substandard student residences, rising tuition fees and poor staff salaries have led to angry protests and frequent strikes. However, government universities cost a fraction of the $4,500 you need to enroll at Ashesi University, where the latest freshman class is 90 with a total student population of 220, and where the staff is well paid.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Eighty percent of Ashesi University students are from Ghana and the rest from other African countries on a continent where most children don't go beyond elementary or high school, let alone finish college. Awuah says about half his students receive financial aid.

Unidentified Man #4: Distinguished guests, fellow students, ladies and gentlemen...

QUIST-ARCTON: Elizabeth Ohene, Ghana's minister in charge of universities, was among the guests of honor at Ashesi's first graduation ceremony.

Ms. ELIZABETH OHENE (Ghana's Minister in Charge of Universities): Ghana's very grateful for people like Patrick Awuah who have taken up this challenge and for what he is doing here. Because, obviously, the old way of the state providing tertiary education for everybody who wants to go is obviously not sustainable.

Unidentified Woman: I now present to you the list of our Palneer(ph) graduates: Wagina Ageri(ph), computer science; Andrew Amara Tarawali(ph), business administration.

(Soundbite of applause)

QUIST-ARCTON: Andrew Tarawali from Sierra Leone was one of the graduating seniors. He said going to Ashesi was a turning point.

Mr. ANDREW TARAWALI (Graduating Senior, Ashesi University): The world is watching us because it said a lot about how different we are, how we're going to change Africa, how we are the hope. So a lot of people are going to be watching us--you--of our stock or what was the truth we're saying.

Unidentified Man #5: So we now come to the conferring of bachelor degrees to the class of 2005.

QUIST-ARCTON: Beaming with pride as he watched Ashesi University's first batch of 20 graduates line up in their hoods and gowns at commencement, Patrick Awuah admitted it had been a struggle.

Mr. AWUAH: The moment that students walked into the gates at Ashesi, you know, my emotions were wild. I was very excited, but I also wanted to crawl under my desk, you know, because these were human beings, people's kids who had put their lives in my hands, you know, their future careers in my hands. And I was scared.

QUIST-ARCTON: Asked if he would like to see his dream replicated across Africa, Patrick Awuah says...

Mr. AWUAH: Yes, but I think that dreams that don't go with action are not very useful. And so, yes, I'm driven. Yes, I'm a dreamer. But I am also quite pragmatic, I think, because we're committed to making sure that this is not an education just for rich kids.

(Soundbite of a graduation ceremony song)

Commencement Singers: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Early days here to tell whether the concept of Ghana's Ashesi University will succeed and catch on, but the class of 2005 feels confident it has a bright future and will make a difference right here in Ghana.

Unidentified Man #6: Members of class 2005, I salute you. You go forth and change Africa. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

INSKEEP: You can find pictures of Ashesi's first graduating class and the first story in our series by going to npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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