Ghana’s first-ever liberal arts college opens the door for more in Africa

A 2015 MacArthur Genuis Grantee opened Africa's first liberal arts college in Ghana almost fifteen years ago. It may pave the way for more schools.

To most people, starting the first-ever liberal arts college in Ghana, a country where just one in 20 students go to college, would seem like a fantasy. But software millionaire Patrick Awuah saw it as an opportunity.

“I realized that most of the problems in this country and the rest of the continent, leadership is a fundamental problem. I felt if we could change the way that group was educated, then we would change the continent,” Mr. Awuah said in an interview with the MacArthur Foundation.

Awuah founded Ashesi University College in Ghana's capital, Accra 13 years ago with a class of 30 students. Today, the school has 631 students – with nearly half receiving scholarships. The school is based on the American liberal-arts college model, like that of Swarthmore College, from which Awuah graduated in 1989: small classrooms, close mentorships with professors, and an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. These traits represent a divergence, Awuah says, from the “rote memorization” that characterizes Ghana’s education system.

“[At Ashesi], there’s a strong teaching about ethics and responsibility I felt was missing from education in Africa. I’m trying to bring the experience that I had at Swarthmore to Africa,” Awuah told NPR.

The school, whose name means "beginning" in Ghana's Akan language, is the first of its kind in Africa, and last month it won Awuah the 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant. Its curriculum – a four-year leadership seminar on ethics, collaboration, and entrepreneurship – is unique to Ghana, and seeks to combat what Awuah calls Africa’s “leadership crisis.”  

In 2008, Ashesi students established an honor code to hold themselves responsible for maintaining Ashesi’s ethos. The school also opened its first-ever engineering program to promote the need for information technology. But the school’s focal point remains ethics and responsibility. (There’s a required course called “Giving Voice to Values”).

It was these principles that drew Class of 2016 student Daniel Obiri to Ashesi nearly four years ago.

“I chose to come to Ashesi simply because of how different the educational system is here,” Mr. Obiri told The Christian Science Monitor in an email. “I am very ambitious and I believe that this school is the only place in Ghana where I will be able to be exposed to the right opportunities and training to help me achieve my goals.”

Ashesi has become something of a buzzword in Ghana; it admits only a small percentage of students who apply, and 100 percent of graduates are employed thus far. Now, Awuah wants to spread Ashesi’s model to other parts of Africa.

Obiri doesn’t seem to think that’s out of the question. “There’s a strong demand for such an educational system, not only in Ghana, but across the whole African continent. Because of this, I believe that eventually a lot more liberal arts colleges will open across Africa.”

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