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A Light That Shines Very Brightly

Patrick Awuah Jr. '89

When I received the invitation to write about the meaning that Swarthmore has had for me, I was thrilled because I immediately understood what a wonderful opportunity this was to talk about the College, to strengthen our fellowship, and to invite others into it. I also thought this would be an easy essay for me to write. Surely it should be easy to tell the story of a Ghanaian kid who came to Swarthmore in 1985 with $50 in his pocket and then experienced a dramatic transformation in his life. I was wrong. It has been a struggle to write for an audience that includes my fellow alumni. I can't imagine anything that I could say here that hasn't already been said to you. Still, I'll try.

After graduating in 1989 with majors in engineering and economics, I headed off to work at Microsoft for what I thought would be a two-year stint that would enable me to put away money for graduate school. Life turned out very differently from the one I had planned; I stayed at Microsoft for eight years. In my sixth year, I began to question my assumptions about my purpose in life-and I rediscovered Swarthmore. My search led me to a somewhat startling conclusion: that I needed to bring the Swarthmore experience back to Ghana. It took me another two years to leave Microsoft and begin to implement this decision. With tremendous help from faculty at the College, and encouragement and support from President Alfred H. Bloom, a new college called Ashesi University College (named according to conventions used in Ghana) was established in Ghana in 2002.

For me, Ashesi is an expression of the essence of Swarthmore College, which I see as a light that shines very brightly and should shine elsewhere in the world. It is a light that has changed my life in ways I could not imagine when I applied to join this fellowship. And it is a light that continues to shine for me and for everything that I do. Even as I type this essay, Professor Fred Orthlieb, who taught my first engineering class at Swarthmore, is here in Accra co-teaching a design course. Words cannot describe how comforting it is to have Fred here with me.

The purest form of my feelings about Swarthmore can  best be found in the way I describe Swarthmore to the Ashesi students. What follows is what I told our most recent incoming class about the meaning of Swarthmore.

"We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring 
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time
            -T.S. Eliot

"Class of 2006, akwaaba! Welcome to Ashesi University. We are thrilled to have you join our community. We are excited about the new beginning that you represent for us and the new start that our institution represents for you.

"In just 28 words, T.S. Eliot shares with us a profound insight about life's journey. About the need for persistence in our quest and the wisdom that comes from returning to our beginnings-the innocence, the curiosity, and the sense of wonder. As young children, the world seemed a very big place, full of delightful things, and sometimes full of danger. We never hesitated then to ask questions like Why? What? Who? When? How?

"I lost that sense of wonderment during my teenage years, but, at age 20, my college experience rekindled that spirit. Swarthmore College, where I experienced this renewal, is a place that still gives me goose bumps when I visit. It is a place where everyone is allowed, indeed required, to ask: Why? What? Who? When? How?-and to keep asking until they truly understand.

"Ashesi University is my attempt to bring that special spark that I found at Swarthmore back to Ghana. The "starting place"-the beginning-in Eliot's poem can also represent returning home with greater insight and conviction.

"My journey back to Ghana has entailed a few rough bumps, such as a time in 1990 when the difficulties and restrictions I saw during a brief visit home led me to believe that I would never return here to stay. But in May 1995, the birth of my first child created a new reality that helped me grow up.

"Have you ever seen the face of a newborn baby?
Have you ever seen the face of a new mother when
      Baby looks up at her?
Have you ever seen the face of a newborn baby? 
It's like seeing the face of God.

"This was my attempt in 1995 to describe my son's birth to my friends. The event of his birth began a period of considerable turmoil for me, as I grappled with the question of how the world would affect him. More precisely, as I looked at my African son, I became increasingly concerned about the state of Africa's economy and society, and the effect it might have on his future. Thus began my quest, with strong support from my wife, Rebecca, to create an institution of higher learning dedicated to training a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial African leaders. Thankfully, many more people have shared this inspiration with Rebecca and me. With their help, on March 4, 2002, Ashesi University was born.

"Ashesi's first year of instruction was an incredible experience. At times, it almost seemed magical to see the transformation among our students, as Ashesi's pioneers, Class of 2005, rose up to the challenge we presented to them. I am convinced that this year-and indeed your next four years-will be every bit as memorable and rewarding.

"Since our modest beginning last year, our faculty and staff strength has increased considerably, and our student enrollment has also increased in size, quality, and diversity. It is no exaggeration to say that you are among a very select and privileged few who have been chosen to join the Ashesi community. You represent a diverse group of individuals who come from Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone; from east to west; from rural villages to metropolitan cities. Yet you also represent a quite uniform group-a cohort of young adults, each of whom holds great capacity to become a leader.

"Many of you, perhaps all of you, have joined us here at Ashesi with the singular purpose of enhancing your career and economic opportunities. You will get that-and more.

"Here at Ashesi, we seek to nurture the leaders of tomorrow's Africa: leaders with a strong appreciation of their responsibility to society and the strength of character to live up to that responsibility. And we do this by inviting you to come on a quest with us, on an exploration of the world we live in. The education you receive here will teach you how to ask the right questions and will give you the tools to assist in your inquiry for the answers and deeper truths.

"Together, we will discuss the age-old questions about what a good society is, and how best to organize the economic activity of such a society. Here at Ashesi, you will acquire clarity and strength of thinking that will make you the great leaders that you are all so capable of becoming. And, of course, you will be equipped with practical skills in business administration and computer science that will serve you well in your budding careers.

"Today, with all the discord in the world; with the cacophony, the constant drumbeat of war across the globe; with the turmoil in the world's financial and product markets; and in the face of the raging HIV/AIDS epidemic-which continues its deadly march, especially in sub-Saharan Africa-it is more important than ever that we strengthen our resolve to accomplish our mission.

"What we do here is nothing short of a search for the future prosperity, the future dignity, the future happiness of the African people, and, ultimately, of humanity. I know you're up to the task.

"We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring 
will be to arrive where we started 
and know the place for the first time.

"Class of 2006, welcome to this expedition we call Ashesi University. I wish you a very successful and rewarding journey in the years to come."

And so it is that we have embarked on quest to fill Ghana with Swarthmore's light. To my fellow alums, I say: Wish us luck in Ghana, and support your alma mater. This light is worth keeping and worth strengthening.

Patrick Awuah Jr. is the founder and president of Ashesi University College in Ghana.