Education, Forward Thinkers // 01.19.2011

Habits of the Mind

Article by Abena A-T

“…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.”

– Dr. Patrick Awuah, Founder and President of Ashesi University College, 2006 Commencement Speech.

From the words above, one can gather that with the birth of his son  two things happened for Dr. Patrick Awuah: a) the future became more of a real place and b) Africa’s dysfunction became less acceptable. One could also say that Dr. Awuah understood the fortitude of his responsibility and capability to make changes.

Ashesi University was founded on March 4th 2002.  It is a Liberal Arts university with a mission to “educate a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa; to cultivate within our students the critical thinking skills, the concern for others and the courage it will take to transform a continent.”

Note the words: Ethical. Entrepreneurial. Critical thinking. The mission alone tells you that this is no ordinary African university.

(Re) Naissance

In its first year, Ashesi began with 30 students. By 2010, the number was around 500. Programs are offered through the departments of Arts and Science, Business Administration, or Computer science. Anita Frempong, an Ashesi graduate with a BC in Business Administration speaks highly of her experience: “I learned to think outside the box and be innovative in everything I do. I also learned about time management and meeting deadlines.” Based on enrollment, positive feedback and the success of its students, Ashesi may well be on its way to achieving its vision: “An African Renaissance driven by a new generation of ethical entrepreneurial leaders.”

Ashesi’s staff and student culture is unique. “Ashesi lecturers are very friendly and open “says Frempong. “By open I mean they are easily approachable and they take part in social activities on campus. She also tells us that Dr. Awuah, though he seems to be a quiet man “does not turn down students when they approach him with questions and conversation.” According to the graduate, Dr. Awuah even trains the school’s Tae Kwon Do Club!

Preparation and Reward

Awuah, originally from Ghana, schooled in the US., earning a degree in Engineering and Economics from Swarthmore College and an MBA from UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business. Since starting Ashesi, many have recognized Awuah for his innovative leadership, commitment to making a difference, and encouragement of youth to reach their potential. Some of the acclaim he’s received include the ‘Membership of the Order of the Volta’- one of Ghana’s highest awards, a 2007 nomination as a Global Leader by the World Economic Forum; the 2009 Microsoft Alumni Foundation “Integral Fellow” award, and the 2009 John P. McNulty Prize, Aspen Institute “which is given to young leaders making innovative and effective contributions to his or her community.”

What really impresses and perhaps shocks most is that after 10 years, Awuah left his job as a program manager at Microsoft to build a vision that he and other like-minded individuals shared. In his speech, he said “Developing the right habits of the mind is the place to start in this project of an African Renaissance.” And he doesn’t take credit for moving towards the renaissance himself: “Ashesi exists today only because a group of people decided to join me to make it real. We have all made significant sacrifices to get from yesterday to today.”

Character and Honor

But for every supporter, there is a naysayer. In his 2010 Commencement Speech, Awuah spoke of doubt being expressed about the school’s success. When an Honor Code was introduced regarding integrity in exams, many doubted that Ashesi students would actually accept and follow it. However, Frempong mentions the Honor Code as an example of why Awuah “is hard-working visionary” and an “action man.” She said: “The whole Ghana wondered how it was going to be successful in Ghana, yet he carried it out.”

Awuah stated that despite evidence of the strength of their approach, their mandate to encourage critical thinking “is questioned by some, simply because it does not conform to the orthodoxy…” He continued, “These sentiments are rampant in our society. They emerge anytime some group of people attempts to operate differently than the norm.” Awuah is not naive to sub-saharan Africa’s setbacks in technologically, financially, or infrastructure-wise, but his understanding of what Africa does have may be what pushes Ashesi to thrive despite murmurs of doubt. According to Awuah, what we have in equal supply with advanced societies is our character for “money is not a prerequisite for compassionate, honest and productive behaviour.”

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