DOHA, Qatar — A U.S.-educated software engineer who quit his job at Microsoft to found a new private university in his native Ghana walked away with a $500,000 education prize this week.
Patrick Awuah, president of the startup Ashesi University College in Accra, said the award “is hopefully going to help us make the case, in Ghana and other African countries, that the model of education that we’re executing is a good one that others should consider.”
Awuah accepted the award on Wednesday at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). He later said the liberal arts college, which opened for business in a rented house in 2002 with an inaugural class of 30 students, is unusual in Ghana: It doesn’t subscribe to the kind of rote-learning-and-memorization pedagogy that most African schools do, and it teaches critical thinking and problem solving, as well as ethics — an unusual proposition in a country where young people “see corruption all the time."
“Our institutions should be about forming good citizens and good leaders for the future — and be very intentional about that, not just sort of leave it as something that will emerge, perhaps by accident or perhaps from people’s homes or their church or faith-based organization,” he said.
When it opened, several faculty members were volunteers or friends whom Awuah somehow persuaded to help out. The school now enrolls about 900 students and is on track to break the 1,000-student mark next year. Half of its students are women and half are on scholarship, he said Thursday.
In all, 25 countries are represented, and nearly 90% of the school’s 1,000 or so alumni have stayed in Africa after graduation. About 80% of its students hail from Ghana; most others come from throughout Africa.
“I am not an astronaut, but there are days when I feel like I am among the stars,” he joked.
The award isn’t the first high-profile honor for Awuah, 52, who studied economics and engineering at Swarthmore College in the 1980s. Once he decided to found a college, he enrolled in business school at the University of California-Berkeley. He was a MacArthur “Genius” awardee in 2015.
Awuah said many students show up at the school “believing that corruption is endemic and unmovable,” seeing it in their daily lives in the form of bribes offered to police during traffic stops or classmates routinely cheating on exams.
“Also, they read about corruption in the newspapers, and nothing is done about it,” he said.
One of the college’s key jobs, he said, is to impress upon students that there’s another way, putting them through ethical-behavior simulations in classes and inviting alumni to share their stories of breaking the cycle of corruption. It also helps, he said when students hear that hiring managers and investors value integrity.
The award comes as Qataris defiantly endure a five-month blockade imposed by four neighboring Arab nations.
In an interview, Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani, a member of Qatari royal family and CEO of the Qatar Foundation, which oversees many of the nation’s educational efforts, recalled that the June blockade actually threatened to strand returning students at Qatar’s well-known Education City campus, which offers college degrees from a half-dozen American universities. The complex enrolls students from more than 60 countries.
When the blockade took place, about 190 students from the affected countries — Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — feared they couldn’t return for the fall semester.
“It was a shock,” Sheikha Hind said. “We didn’t expect it to happen overnight.”
She and others conferred with deans at the schools and arranged to allow students to enroll in the universities’ U.S. campuses if needed. In the end, virtually all were allowed to return to class in Doha last fall.
In the end, she said, the incident has actually proved why the region needs an effort like Education City.
“It’s important to make sure that we educate our future leaders to be able to have dialogue, but also to know how to deal with disagreements,” she said. “If anything, I think our presence today is even more important — we’re still open to the world, we’re still open to everyone, and we continue to do what we do. We haven’t changed our course — we’re trying to do more, and I think we’re lucky because we are in education, and that’s the one thing that people will always support and will always invest in.”
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo