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Thursday, February 28, 2013

For want of $400...

Charlie writes:
Emirita Professor Nana Araba Apt
Matthew Christopher Taggart
Prof. Astrid Tweneboah Larssen

Yesterday evening, the Ashesi community said farewell to three
long-term staffers, Emerita Professor Nana Araba Apt, Matthew Christopher Taggart, and his wife, Professor Astrid Tweneboah Larssen. As part of the celebrations, Ashesi's founder, Patrick Awuah revealed the truth about early days.

Actually, Matt was Patrick and Nina's first employee before
the college opened its doors. Over the intervening twelve
years, Matt has spearheaded Ashesi's fundraising efforts, helping to raise over $20 million in funds for construction of the campus and funds for scholarships.  Patrick remarked that his arrival prompted a move from an office over the Red Door Tavern to another, about the size of Ashesi's current reception lobby, on the fourth floor of a Seattle movie theatre.

Patrick's emotions caught up with him as he recalled times he had cowered under his desk in that office, his legs pressed against the desktop from below, shaking with fear. He also recalled Matt fussing at him from under a table for standing by the window of that office looking at construction cranes swaying during a magnitude 7 earthquake!  He also shared a story that inspired the title of this post. As he considered what event was the seed for Ashesi, he realized he needed to tell the story of his admission to Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia.

I had heard that Patrick, having graduated from the Achimota School, had been encouraged to apply to Swarthmore by the US Embassy college office which was in the building now occupied by the Barclay's bank adjacent AU Circle in Accra. Yesterday, we heard "the rest of the story."

Patrick told how he had received an offer of admission from Swarthmore, which at the time cost about $15,000 a year. The offer was accompanied by a scholarship covering all but $100 of those expenses. He excitedly prepared paperwork for a visa to travel to the USA, only to be rejected. When he asked why the application had been refused, he was told of the policy that students requesting permission to attend college in the USA were expected to document bank assets covering the family's total financial obligations for the student's four years expenses in advance.

Patrick explained that his parents had only enough in the bank to cover one year. He elaborated for his audience's consideration that in those days, Ghanaians were in economic distress. Finding money to buy food for the week was a challenge, never mind the astronomical sum of $400 for college tuition.

He argued, "if you let me go to the USA, I will be able to find some way to make the other $300." Still no dice, no exceptions would be made.

Crestfallen, Patrick had to write Swarthmore, appealing to them to reduce his family's contribution to his fees by a factor of four so he could get a visa. After an anxious wait, his family received another offer letter from the college, with a scholarship covering all of Patrick's expenses. As Patrick remarked, "we could handle four times zero, even if we couldn't cover four times $100." So he was able to re-apply to the visa section, got his visa, and began his college career that fall.

Patrick ruminated that an "invisible hand" had reached across the ocean and pulled him though a life-changing experience. A person or people unknown to him had donated money to the college. The college had awarded that money to his family without the donors knowing them, either. What a concept! He noted that recent alumni newsletters reported twenty million and fifty million dollar gifts being made for these "invisible hands" from Swarthmore in recent times.

He challenged the hundreds of students in the Cornfield Courtyard gathered to hear his address with the vision that some of them, come 20 or 30 years, would remember their Ashesi experiences, and provide the funds for a similar "invisible hand" for an unknown student to attend their alma mater.

Patrick noted that Matt had decided a few years into the project that Ashesi could not afford to pay him a salary that would support him in Seattle, and offered to relocate to Ghana to save the college precious funds. He recalled going back to Seattle, packing up their office, donating furniture to charities and closing up their office over the theatre.

Then, as we had heard before, came the December when the executive team had to postpone their paychecks. Yet, Patrick said the idea of stopping financial aid was never seriously considered, recalling the importance that "invisible hand" had meant to him and his family. A school dedicated to the vision of raising a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders for the transformation of a continent had to make provision for those unable to afford the cost to be extended that opportunity.

While Patrick admitted that he hadn't had to ride horseback, hat in hand, as had Edward Parrish the first president of Swarthmore College nearly 150 years ago, he already had international bookings in the first ten months of 2013, and November was filling in. He vowed to keep December free for his family here in Ghana, but understood the vital need to keep raising the capital funds to cover the construction of the planned engineering expansion.

"We claim a higher mission for Swarthmore College than that of fitting men and women for business. It should fit them for life, with all its possibilities.- Edward Parrish

Later in the evening, Matt delivered a heart-felt impromptu message, admitting that the twelve years at Ashesi had made him the man he is today. He met his wife, had two children, and was able to invest his work in an idea that he was passionate about. He encouraged all hearers that he wished for them the joy of finding passion in their work, and pledged to continue to support Ashesi in the future.

Patrick surprised Nana Apt by unveiling a plaque naming the lecture hall 218, the one near the canteen, in her honor. In her address, Nana was clearly touched, saying "usually, you don't live to see this sort of honor!"

Mary Kay has been reading a book called The Idea Factory:  Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner.  She and I spent the evening talking of the "lore" of places like Bell Labs and MIT, and we realized that these stories are a huge part of the legacy founders make to those places. I certainly will not soon forget the image of the $400 that seemed to be the insurmountable barrier to Patrick's dreams.

Thank you Nana, Matt and Astrid for your parts in the Ashesi story!  You will always be a part of our legend.

Only take care, and keep your soul diligently,lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen,
and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.  Make them known to your children and your children's children.
Deuteronomy 4:9 (ESV)