Back in 2009 I never would have thought that I would be preparing for my 5th STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) summer program in Ghana. It has been an incredibly challenging yet rewarding journey as our core team has scaled this undergraduate summer experience into a sustainable nonprofit organization.
In 2009, Chelsey Roebuck, Clayton Dahlman, Danny Cosson, and Todd Kwao-vovo, four brave (and naive) college students from Columbia Engineering, embarked on an adventure. At the time, one of us had ever traveled to Africa. In fact, I had never traveled outside of the country. Nevertheless, we loaded up cardboard boxes with science equipment and recycled computers from the basement of the Columbia Engineering Building, and boarded a Lufthansa flight to Accra.
Exiting the airport in Accra was as terrifying as anything that I’ve ever experienced. Walking out of the airport we were immediately greeted by what seemed like thousands of people rushing towards the obvious student tourists, offering assistance with our luggage, finding a taxi, purchasing phone cards, etc. Once we eventually met our host, Sammy Gamson, it was another 2.5 hours through the traffic of Accra and over the unpaved road to Nsawam. Back in 2009 there were rumors of a highway being built to connect Nsawam to the metropolitan city but the experience riding in a tro-tro through ditches and potholes gave little suggestion that progress was on the way.
It was a rough 6 weeks in our initial years living in Obodan. Obodan, Sammy’s hometown, is a small satellite village a few miles outside of Nsawam. Four of us spent the time crammed together in a concrete room sleeping on the floor below mosquito nets and atop latex foam mattresses. I was fortunate enough to listen to my mother and bring my own camping mattress from REI. Clay and Danny were not so lucky as the mattress they shared for the month was damp and moldy from day one. The walls were painted a sterile pale blue, only brightened by a single bulb on the ceiling (when electricity was available) that providing just enough light to see the red dirt and cobwebs in the corners. The village had no running water and thus no flush toilets or showers. Trips to the bathroom required strapping on a headlamp or flashlight and walking about 50 yards to a dark closet with an elevated pit to squat over. Bath time was a similar experience but first required a 5-minute walk to the borehole on the other side of the village followed by a carful act of trying to transport the bucket back to the washroom with minimal spillage.
This experience alone made others question our sanity. Why on earth would we subject ourselves to this? To volunteer? Yes, the first few years we spent our own money, or our parent’s money, to travel abroad and teach. Despite the personal sacrifices, it was the students who made the experience worthwhile. And it is the students who have kept us coming back.
After arriving in Accra earlier this week and traveling immediately to the University of Cape Coast, our current program host in Ghana, I ventured back to Nsawam to connect with our former students from 2009 and 2010. Many of our students from the first few years have graduated from high school, gotten jobs, gotten married, and or enrolled in universities. Still, about 15 students responded to a last minute Facebook message and came out to meet me in town and reconnect over dinner. Emmanuel Kemevor, also known as Ortega, has always been passionate about film and entertainment. So I was incredibly excited to learn that after working with us in 2011 to film experiments and student interviews to make a program highlight reel, he now works as a Video Editor at Extra Edge Multimedia Concept in Nsawam. Mohammad Abanga, is one of the strongest and hardest working people that I have ever met. If it wasn’t apparent on the soccer field where he labored for hours to help our team win games against local villages without water due to his religious obligations during Eid, he surely showed it in 2011 when he woke up at 3am every morning in to study for his National exams. We’ve always known Mohammed had what it takes to be successful, so we were not the slightest bit surprised to learn that he had enrolled in and just completed his first year a Takoradi Polytechnic where he is currently studying Electronics Engineering.
Ortega and Mohammed are just two of many success stories for ELiTE over the years. As we focus more on metrics and evaluation going forward, we expect to have extensive quantitative data to back up our students’ incredible stories.