It was 1984. Ghana was struggling to recover from revolution. And the young man, Patrick Awuah, sometimes had trouble finding enough food.
But he wanted to talk about fiber optics, a technology he'd read about in a magazine. It could change the world — and Africa.
"He was fascinated with the whole concept — and he'd never been able to read more than a Scientific American article," says Keteku, a New Englander who advises African students on study in the United States. "That's when you could begin to see that he would be a scholar."
That prediction proved small. Two decades after Awuah sought help tapping into the standard American dream, he is going home to pursue one of his own making: Awuah, who studied engineering at Swarthmore College and made a small fortune at Microsoft, is building a university — one that he hopes becomes the seed for an African Ivy League.
Awuah, 38, has been designing Ashesi University, a private liberal-arts school, for years from his modest bungalow in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood. He's leaned on Microsoft colleagues and Ghanaian immigrants to donate money and time. He won government approval and, a year ago, started classes in the capital city of Accra. This year the 22 founding sophomores were joined by 41 new freshmen.
And that is just a beginning.
Like a latter-day Andrew Carnegie, Awuah wants to replicate his project across the continent, creating a network of world-class liberal-arts schools to educate Africa's future government and business leaders.
Launching point for a vision
Ghana appears as good a place as any to start. It is politically stable following a siege of political and economic crises that began in the 1960s. It remains one of the world's poorest countries, with personal income averaging $270 last year. But the literacy rate is 74 percent. English is the official language.
"You've got to remember that Ivy Leagues in this country started the same way as Ashesi," says Paul Maritz, a former Microsoft executive and native of Zimbabwe. "Harvard University was once a house in downtown Boston somewhere with 50 students."
Such small houses produced the visionaries of a new nation, says Maritz: "The people that went to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were all lawyers trained at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, etc. — tiny schools, but they supplied that governance-leadership cadre that is the bedrock of any society."
Few who know Awuah doubt his ability to start such a bedrock in Africa. Colleagues say he is passionate, tenacious and thorough. And his commitment is evident: He is relocating his Seattle-born wife and their two small children to Ghana and devoting himself full time to the school.
"It's one of those things we can't do in a halfhearted way," Awuah says. "It's a binding thing for me, with parenthood, so there's a real kind of urgency about it."
That urgency is driven, in no small part, by Awuah's desire to have a college in Ghana good enough to send his son to. The birth of Nanayaw, now 8, gave birth to the dream of Ashesi. "Suddenly Africa was a lot more important to me," Awuah says.
Liberal arts lacking
The people of Ghana have an innate curiosity, according to Keteku, who married a Ghanaian studying at Dartmouth and moved to Accra in 1976. She heads the U.S. State Department education-outreach programs in Africa and advises Ashesi.
"Ghanaians are adventurous people," she says. "They're travelers; they want to find out what's going on in the rest of the world."
And so they have long sought education, traveling from remote villages into the cities and to universities in Europe and the U.S. That drive persisted through more than a century of British rule of the territory known then as the Gold Coast, when university scholarships were strictly limited by the government. Indeed, African universities were fertile ground for the revolutionary stirrings that led to Ghana's independence in 1957.
The British left a legacy of strong primary and secondary education, including boarding schools such as the one Awuah attended as a teen.
Today the country has five public universities, the first opening in 1948, a cluster of vocational schools and a few church-sponsored colleges. The waiting list for college can be two years long.
And poverty has taken a toll. Facilities are run-down, faculty are underpaid and students occasionally riot over various fees charged to shore up school budgets.
None of those schools offers a classic liberal-arts education.
"The need for a foundation that teaches you to be resourceful, to think outside the box, is much more vital to a developing country than the U.S.," Keteku says. "That's where I see the importance of sending that American liberal-arts model abroad."
Because so few Africans go to college, she says, anyone with a degree becomes "a very important person with responsibility."
A dream almost denied
Patrick Awuah's engineer father and nurse mother both went abroad, to England, for their degrees. But when their son's turn came, a near-bankrupt economy left him scraping for essentials. Never mind fancy schooling.
"We ate twice a day instead of three times," Awuah says. "1983, I was hungry most of the time."
Awuah told his story from the safe distance of his bright Seattle living room this summer, seated on a wooden stool from Ghana decorated with a symbol for unity. He described the crowded high school where, for a year, he taught 160 students in two grades. He would rush to the market on payday to spend his paycheck before its value dropped.
His hope of studying in the U.S. was boosted by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, which offered a scholarship covering all but $100 a year of its $15,000 annual tuition. But the U.S. State Department refused to grant Awuah a visa because he didn't have $400 in cash to cover his share of tuition.
When it seemed an American education was beyond reach, Swarthmore intervened. The college would pay for everything.
Taking career option No. 3
Swarthmore introduced Awuah to the liberal arts, where he was challenged to think and analyze and solve problems. No more rote memorization and recitation.
"My professors actually wanted to know what I thought," he says. "They'd give you really hard problems to solve with the faith that you'd figure it out."
As he was finishing at Swarthmore, a Microsoft recruiter came to campus. Awuah landed an interview, but made it clear his goals soared beyond working for some fledgling high-tech company on the far West Coast. Maritz, the Microsoft executive, still chuckles about Awuah's interview with manager Richard McAniff:
"He told Richard, 'You know my first choice in life is to be an astronaut.' "
McAniff replied: 'Well, all our openings for astronauts at Microsoft have just been filled up.' " Then he asked Awuah why he was talking to Microsoft.
"You have to be a U.S. citizen to be an astronaut, so I don't qualify," Awuah said.
"What do you want to do if you're not an astronaut?"
"I'd like to be an entrepreneur and make a lot of money so I can go back and help people in Ghana."
"What's your third choice?"
"To work at Microsoft."
Awuah moved to Redmond, where he worked on Windows components that enable computers to network, communicate and share resources.
It's also where he met a software tester named Rebecca Hulscher, the daughter of a Peace Corps administrator and a preschool teacher. She married Awuah in 1994 and became wedded to his dream of educating a nation. They seeded Ashesi University with $500,000 of their own money.
"Obviously our first thought was technology in terms of what we could bring Ghana," says Rebecca, 35, who left Microsoft to teach for awhile at Garfield High School. "By the time Patrick was ready to leave Microsoft it had evolved into higher ed."
Awuah watched as other underdeveloped regions progressed, but his native Africa remained bogged in political instability, corruption, disease and poverty. He wanted his children — Nanayaw and 1-year-old daughter Efia — to have a good future in their ancestral home if they wished.
"The people who turned Asia around starting 50 years ago have made this world a better place for everyone," he says. "I look at the people who have led Africa to where it is today. They have not helped anybody — nobody on the continent, nobody off the continent.
"It's really important to turn that around for the sake of the world that my kids will be living in. ... When you start to think of it that way, all we're doing is a very small sacrifice."
Exactly what Africa needs
When Awuah walked away from Microsoft — and more wealth — in 1997, he made his mission clear.
"It struck me as one of the best reasons to leave Microsoft I'd heard, as opposed to going surfing or whatever," says Bill Bliss, Awuah's then-boss. "I thought, 'Wow, he's serious. He may be nuts, but he's serious.' "
Bliss has never been to Ghana but has become a trustee, fund-raiser and ardent supporter of Ashesi.
"That whole thing about teaching a man to fish — it really holds true," he says. "At Microsoft it really resonates: a university education and what that affords."
Ashesi's message also resonates with other African immigrants. Yaw Asare-Aboagye — educated in Nigeria and at Tulane and Duke universities — was one of about 500 Ghanaians living in the Seattle area when he worked for Immunex, a Seattle-based biotech firm. He now lives in Ventura, Calif., and is associate director of Amgen, which acquired Immunex.
"Whenever we have meetings with Africans, what I hear everyone say is this is exactly what we need," he says.
'There is no Plan B'
Awuah tackled his personal project with the same exhaustive planning and research he showed as a project manager at Microsoft. He enrolled in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His master's project: a feasibility study of Ashesi.
While there, he persuaded fellow student and Tokyo native Nina Marini to abandon her international business career and join Ashesi. Marini leads the Ashesi University Foundation funding the school, which has $3 million toward a $15 million goal. They hope to build a 100-acre campus outside Accra for 1,000 students.
"He's not afraid to think big," Marini says of Awuah. "That's what's gotten him to where he is today."
McAniff, the Microsoft manager who hired Awuah almost 20 years ago, said Awuah's determination is unwavering.
"I was talking to him (about Ashesi) one time and said, 'What's Plan B?' " McAniff says. "He said 'There is no Plan B, we're going to make this work.' It's that same kind of drive he had when he first came to Microsoft."
Ashesi begins to take shape
Not that it's been — or will be — easy. As plans for Ashesi grew more ambitious, Awuah fretted that he was starting something he couldn't finish. At times, he considered returning to Microsoft.
"I was afraid of failing. I was afraid this was not going to work," he says. "I said, 'What have I done? The dot-com boom is going crazy; it's not a good time to leave.' "
Then Awuah came across a quote from Goethe that inspired him to continue and to name the school Ashesi, which means "beginning" in the Ashanti dialect of Ghana. "I typed it up and put it on my mirror, the first thing I saw every morning," he says, reciting it from memory: If there is anything you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
What he began now lives as a small school housed in two large, walled-in homes in residential Accra. It boasts a computer lab, a library, air conditioning and a rare and costly Internet connection.
It offers a general-studies program developed with help from Swarthmore, a computer-science program developed with the University of Washington and a business-management program developed with Berkeley's Haas School.
Faculty from those and other U.S. schools serve as visiting professors. Among them, Tom Campbell, a former Silicon Valley congressman who is now the dean at Haas. He says the facilities are up-to-date, the environment seems professional and the students come to class on time — "no worse than at Berkeley."
As a congressman, Campbell visited 21 nations in Africa between 1995 and 2001. The only project he saw akin to Ashesi is a teaching college in Eritrea funded by expatriates and donations from Silicon Valley.
It will take more money — lots of it — and time to make Ashesi a sustained success.
"It's going to take a few years before Ashesi attracts Ghana's best and brightest," says Keteku, the education adviser in Accra. "But it's drawing students who have potential. They recognize Ashesi is doing something for them that no one else could do."
A 15-year commitment
Ashesi also is doing something for Awuah. It is bringing him home.
He is living again in his mother's home in Accra. His son Nanayaw is falling asleep to the sound of crickets and toads and waking to roosters and wild birds outside the window. Wife Rebecca is learning to drive in Accra's chaotic traffic. For baby Efia, it will be her first remembered home.
And Awuah is settling into a routine, interviewing for faculty posts at Ashesi.
The Awuahs are keeping their Green Lake bungalow in Seattle for now. "And I'm supposed to ask Rebecca after a year how it's going, so I will ask that," Awuah says, grinning.
But, in his heart, Awuah has made a 15-year commitment.
Fifteen years. Long enough for Nanayaw to graduate from Ashesi University.
Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or email@example.com