Remarks to the Class of 2020
by Keynote Speaker Patrick G. Awuah, Jr.
Connecticut College’s 102nd Commencement
June 12, 2022
President Bergeron, Trustees, faculty and staff, family and friends, and dear Class of 2020, thank you for this honor and for the invitation to spend this special day with you.
Today has been a long-time coming, hasn’t it? I remember recording a brief video message for you two years ago when the pandemic upended plans for your commencement ceremony. “How disappointing it must be for the Class of 2020, to have their special day disrupted in this manner,” I thought. But as predicted in the poem I shared with you that day, here we are, past the trough, with land once again in sight. Congratulations, once again, to you, your families and the Connecticut College community for making this moment possible.
Many of you are now going forward in life, I am sure. But do you remember the first day you stepped foot on this beautiful campus? I bet you do; and I bet that despite the time between then and now, it still seems not too long ago.
I too, remember my first day at college, when I arrived in the United States from Ghana on a scholarship and with US$50 in my pocket. I remember taking a twenty-minute taxi ride from Philadelphia airport to Swarthmore College – a ride that cost $20. A dollar a minute. I’ll admit a moment of anxiety when I realized that I may have come to America with just “fifty minutes” of cash; but as I stepped into my dormitory with the remaining $30 in my pocket, I mostly felt on top of the world. I felt that way because of the opportunities that I knew college would open to me. I loved the beauty of the campus and its people. I looked forward to new friendships. I looked forward to studying Engineering, and I looked forward to a wonderful 4 years in college, enabled by the kindness of donors whose gifts had made it possible for a young Ghanaian man to access a Swarthmore education.
Approximately sixteen and a half years after my first day at Swarthmore, thirty pioneering students enrolled at a new college in Ghana that I established, modeled in part on my college experience.
Today, Ashesi University, as it is called, operates on a beautiful campus overlooking Ghana’s capital city of Accra, and enrolls approximately 1,300 students –the same size as Swarthmore’s student body when I was there. We have close to 2,000 alumni representing some 30 countries in Africa. Half of the students at Ashesi receive scholarships; and a quarter pay nothing at all to attend. They get a great education at an institution that is currently ranked #1 in Ghana, and 7th in Africa on the Times Higher Education University Impact Ranking. And when our students graduate, they launch into rewarding careers and a chance to change to world, just like you, Class of 2020.
Know that the journey from my first day of college, to my current endeavor at Ashesi was not a straight path. Before going to college, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but space seemed out of reach for me. Back then, only a very small group of US and Soviet citizens qualified for that endeavor. So, when I applied to college, I decided to study engineering. My first job after college was at Microsoft Corporation developing software –not the hardware focus I started college with. Along the way, I became fixated on the idea of contributing to an African transformation and prepared to change my career trajectory again. That was not an easy moment.
The event that triggered my angst, was the birth of my son. With his birth, Africa’s future took on a whole new meaning for me. It seemed to me that the state of the continent would have a profound impact on the future happiness of all people of African descent, whether they lived in Africa or not. It also seemed that people like me who’d had such great opportunities should be part of making the change we need to see in Africa.
What would you do if you were me? I did not have the resources of Bill Gates nor was I the president of a country. How would you decide a path towards achieving the goal of transforming a continent?
My challenge was to determine a meaningful first step that I could make towards this larger goal. At first, I considered starting a technology company in Ghana. I began speaking to family and friends, but the problems people shared with me seemed to call for more than technological solutions. More fundamentally, people were frustrated that those who were in positions to solve problems often contributed to them by acting ineffectively, or worse, unethically.
So, I asked the question “Where did those in positions of influence—the country’s leaders—come from? And why did they behave the way they did?” The answer I came to was that most people in positions of influence in Ghana were among the 5% of their peers who got a post-secondary education. They came from our colleges and universities.
So, I decided to engage with that cohort. I proposed to set up a university that would be intentional about educating future African leaders who are deeply ethical; who are committed to the common good; who expect problems to be solved; and who possess the skills and the courage to solve those problems. I hoped that this new university might set an example that others would follow.
I got my wife’s permission to leave Microsoft and begin the journey towards starting Ashesi. And then I stalled. You see, the idea of starting a new university seemed too big. I hesitated for more than a year because I was just plain scared.
Now many of you have heard the saying: “a journey of a thousand miles, begins with one step.” What many often do not know, however, is the full proverb, from Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu:
Do the big things while they are small, and do the difficult things while they are easy. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step.
My decision to leave Microsoft for Ghana, was a difficult one when considered in isolation. However, compared to the size of the problem I was trying to commit myself to, it was smaller. Easier. It was only the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.