Everyone has a story to tell but not everyone’s story means so much to so many. At the turn of the century, Ghanaian-born Patrick Awuah, Jr. was an engineer at Microsoft in Seattle when he returned to Ghana to start a new university aimed at inspiring young Africans to become ethical, entrepreneurial leaders among historic, systemic challenges. After nearly twenty years since its founding, Ashesi University has changed the course of higher education in Africa, and, with it, the lives of thousands of students and their families.

Awuah’s decision to return to Ghana was a difficult one, particularly for someone who had so successfully transcended the circumstances that encumbered many of his peers. Awuah was educated at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania where the liberal arts pedagogy encouraged curiosity and debate. As an engineering student, he was writing code and building things as well as studying philosophy and political theory.  The government-run university system in Africa was more rote learning than critical thinking, providing only a monolithic option for the less than 5% of young people in Ghana who attended college at the time. Awuah became convinced that to enact economic and political change in Africa, there needed to be a mindset shift in teaching and learning that would encourage that small percentage of young people to think big. 

A few things happened then that would lead him to act on his conviction. Crisis in Rwanda and Somalia painted a negative picture of Africa in the American media, which made Africans in America eager to change the narrative.  In the late 1990s, Microsoft’s annual earnings exceeded Ghana’s gross national product, igniting a sense of moral obligation for those who had left and done well. In 1995, Awuah had a son, born in the US, and he worried for the first time about the racism that is uniquely experienced by African Americans. With a business plan he and his colleagues created while at UC/Berkely, a foundation that would serve as a fund-raising vessel, and the support of his wife, Rebecca, Awuah returned to Ghana in 1998 to begin the process of establishing Ashesi, which means “beginning” in Akan. The university enrolled its first students in 2002.

Photography provided by Ashesi University

Awuah faced a chilly reception from accreditors and peer organizations but nonetheless launched Ashesi with 30 students, half of whom received need-based scholarships. Today, it serves about 1,400 students and has a target of growing to 2,500.  Ashesi is now recognized as one of the finest universities in Africa with a proven track record in fostering ethical leadership, critical thinking, an entrepreneurial mindset, and the ability to solve complex problems. Through its example, it has changed the way Africa educates its young people and has created a learning community throughout the country and the continent.

As the story continues, Awuah talks about how he did what he did, what he learned, and what it will take to realize his dream of an African Renaissance.    

LearningWell: How did your experiences in the US influence your decision to focus on education in Ghana?

Awuah: Higher education in Africa has been about looking at the past and regurgitating things that others have discovered.  At Swarthmore, faculty were not interested in me memorizing information and repeating it back to them.  In fact, if you did that, you got a bad grade. It was about active learning.  In terms of my time at Microsoft, the company’s success was largely dependent on the US economy and how it operated within that.  But, very importantly, it was, and is, influenced by the people who work there. They were innovative, they created things, they always thought about what they wanted to do next, and they competed with other companies that were doing interesting things. I realized that this had a lot to do with the kind of education that they’d had. I realized then that we needed a different way of teaching and learning and of nurturing future leaders.

LearningWell: You set out to influence the percentage of people who go to college in Ghana, not on raising the college participation rates.  How did this become your goal?

Awuah: At the time I was thinking, “I am an individual living in Seattle with limited means. What can I do that would make the most difference?” It seemed to me that if you could change the way that, say, 5% of the people are educated, you can change the country, because they are the people who are going to run businesses. They are the people who will run the courts, the government, the police force, the military, etc.  And the way they view the world and the way they engage with the world has profound implications for everyone else.  I felt like I could demonstrate a different way of teaching and learning for Ghana that would get to these same outcomes. 

"The people who learn first how to take intellectual risks in the classroom are the people who can eventually take risks in business.  The most important thing is for a mind to not be afraid."

LearningWell: What was your vision for the university?

Awuah: We wanted to establish a university that moved away from rote learning to a model that nurtured people to be philosophical and active learners about what our society should look like and understand that thinking that way would bring tremendous value to society. First of all, it was very important to me that I founded a university that I would want to work in, whether I was a man or a woman.  And one that I would be happy sending my kids to—inclusive and high quality.  I also wanted it to be an institution that reflected Ghanaian society and, ultimately, African society.

We want to educate people who are going to be good leaders.  And for us that meant people that sit at the intersection of leadership, scholarship, and citizenship. Scholarship means everyone’s a student and everyone’s a teacher.  That means we are sharing our knowledge with each other and we are asking questions that expand conversations, not narrow them.  Leadership is about helping others be more successful, helping society be more successful.  We want people who are collaborative, who engage the talents of others, who communicate effectively, which means they listen well and speak well. And we want good citizens—people who care about the common good, who are ethical. They think about the long-term implications of the decisions they make.

I also, right from the beginning, wanted to make sure that striving for excellence did not mean being afraid of making mistakes or afraid of owning up to mistakes. Sometimes people think that excellence and imperfection are at odds with each other, but the day you lose excellence is the day you think you have achieved perfection.  So that is the culture I set out to build.

LearningWell: What was the initial response to your plans among the academic community and others?

Awuah: The people in corporate Ghana were glad to see something like this in the works.  They were just skeptical I could stay the course.  “Ok, great idea but is this guy really going to do it?”  (I was young then and looked even younger.) 

Ghana’s accreditation system involves a peer review process and the faculty that came to review our curriculum didn’t really like it.  They didn’t like the multi-disciplinarity of it.  The liberal arts core curriculum they didn’t understand.  “Why would a computer science student take courses in philosophy?  They should just do more math.” There was a lot of push-back and a lot of convincing. 

I think that some people felt somewhat disrespected by Ashesi’s reason for being.  “What is so wrong with us that you need to disrupt what we’re doing?” When it came to hiring faculty, we got no applicants from Ghana.  No one in academia here took me seriously.  Private universities were not allowed in Ghana until the late 1990s and the whole thing was such a new idea.  But after a couple of years, this started to change.  I was very fortunate to have a senior professor from the University of Ghana who joined my advisory board, and she eventually joined my team as the dean of faculty and that made a huge difference.

"Some of our African American friends would say to us Africans, “You guys don’t seem to have a Black consciousness.”

LearningWell: You had a strong social justice mission. What does equity look like at Ashesi? Is it different than in the United States?

Awuah: I think in the US, there are too many labels and that affects people’s mental health and sense of belonging. Here, we just see people as people. We now have students from all over the continent.  The fact that someone is from Rwanda or Kenya or Nigeria or Zimbabwe–or if someone is poor–this is not a label. We try to only see them as who they are—all of us just engaging with other people. 

I’ve advocated for this here because of what I saw in the US.  When I was first in college, there was something I didn’t understand. I actually didn’t understand it until my son was born. Some of our African American friends would say to us Africans, “You guys don’t seem to have a Black consciousness.” Our response was “Of course we know we’re Black, what do you mean?” But the difference was that when I was growing up, I didn’t move around the world with this notion I was Black, I was just “Patrick.” When I go to other countries where the first thing they think of me is “You’re Black,” that creates a lot of barriers.

So we’ve tried to be very careful about not doing that here, especially as we become more diverse.  For example, we want this campus to fully reflect Ghanaian society in terms of physical and learning disabilities.  We’ve set a goal that 4% of the Ashesi community will be people with disabilities. We’ve asked our HR department and hiring managers to think about what jobs someone with autism or Down syndrome might do. And then these people will just be part of our community. They’ll just be “Kofi” or “Adwoa” or “Sarah.”  This makes for a healthy, compassionate place where people feel like they belong and that helps with wellbeing. 

LearningWell: After nearly 20 years, what do you feel has been achieved at Ashesi? What’s still needed?

Awuah: Things are quite different now than they were 20 years ago. The way we approached education was challenged very strongly. Now, there are 50 or 60 private institutions in Ghana. The accrediting system now encourages universities to have what they call a general studies component, what we call our core curriculum. There’s a notion that educating people broadly is a good thing.  

We see a lot more engagement.  We started a collaborative about six years ago and we said, “Let’s get together and share pedagogy and ideas on how we run our universities.  About 10 universities joined us at that time and we now have 400 universities from all over the continent.  There’s a palpable sense of excitement and optimism about lowering the barriers between our institutions and learning from each other. 

I can honestly tell you there are thousands of people whose lives are very different than what they would have been had Ashesi not existed.  Their families have changed and that is very gratifying to see. And it has had an impact.  When we first presented to the accreditation board, we had a goal: 90% of our students would find employment or graduate school placement within six months of beginning their search.  No one thought this was going to happen.  This is in a country where it was accepted that 90% of graduates would take five years to find their first employment.  We’ve met our goal every year.  The last class we measured was something like 96%.  So, the expectation was very low and it is now very different.  Everybody’s asking universities to track how they’re doing on career placement and that’s going to compel all of us to be educating people in ways that actually enable the economy.

Everybody is now talking about educating people in such a way that they can be job creators, they can be entrepreneurs.  There are people who say, “If you want to educate entrepreneurs then have them take a course in entrepreneurship.”  They don’t realize that the liberal arts is a really good way to educate entrepreneurs—individuals who know how to question the status quo or imagine new things. The people who learn first how to take intellectual risks in the classroom are the people who can eventually take risks in business.  The most important thing is for a mind to not be afraid.  

In terms of what still needs to happen? Our graduates are highly sought-after in industry, but are our graduates able to uphold high ethical standards in the outside world? Each year, alumni return to campus to share personal examples of being invited to join corrupt schemes. These alumni tell current students how they successfully chose the ethical path, sometimes turning down a great deal of benefit.

I am grateful for Ashesi’s growing reputation, and proud of the work of our students, alumni, staff, and faculty. But Africa needs even more from Ashesi and needs more institutions like Ashesi. Sitting in Africa’s classrooms today are students whose education will set Africa’s course over the next 20-to-30 years. When more African universities follow Ashesi’s model, we will see a better future for Africa and for the world.