“Build a team you can depend on,” Patrick Awuah tells Class of 2018

June 23, 2018
Your Excellency President Akufo-Addo; Your Excellencies, members of the diplomatic corps; Honorable Ministers and Members of Parliament; Odeefuo Oteng-Korankye II; Nananom; Members of the Board; Vice Chancellor of the University of Mines and Technology; Representative of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Coast; Distinguished Guests; Parents, family and friends; and dear Class of 2015:

Welcome to the 14th commencement ceremony of Ashesi University, 23rdJune 2018. Remember this day. This is one of the most special days in Ashesi’s year history, for on this day, we celebrate Ashesi’s Commencement as a fully independent university under the laws of the Republic of Ghana.

We will remember you too, Class of 2018, for being the first class to celebrate the honor of Ashesi’s independence and to receive certificates embossed with the seal of your alma mater – a seal that reminds us all to explore, to lead, and to serve. Ashesi University represents an example of what a community of inspired people can achieve together; and so today, I have decided to share with you a story from 17 years ago, as Nina Marini (my co-founder) and I searched for the land on which to build this institution.

As some of you know, when Ashesi’s founding team first came to Ghana, we considered several different locations for this campus. We explored sites in Berekuso, Dodowa, East Legon, Koforidua, and Tema. Some of the sites were quite nice; others not so much. But when we came here, met Odeefoo Oteng Korankye II, the elders and the people of Berekuso, Nina and I were struck by how welcoming Nana and the elders were. We were impressed by Nana’s insistence that the youth leaders of the community be present for our conversation. As he explained it, the allocation of land was about the legacy we would be building for future generations, so youth had to be present.

When we came up to this site, I remember feeling a sense of awe. It felt like an oasis tucked away on this hill. There were no cars honking, and this place reflected such a sense of peace. It was greenfield, with grass taller than me, and footpaths weaving through the hills. The air was cool. You could hear birds singing amongst the trees.

I remember my mom and dad trekking up the hill with Nina and me to see what I had described to them as the future site of Ashesi’s campus.  There was a light drizzle, and when my dad’s pickup truck spun its wheels laboring up the hill, Nina and I jumped out and pushed. We made our way up to the crest of the hill, I looked, again, at a beautiful view of Accra, I truly fell in love with Berekuso. We were wet from the rain, but I was happy!

Through that tall grass, I saw Ashesi University. I saw students walking through hallways, talking with each other. I saw friendships blossoming. I saw classrooms and labs, with faculty and students exchanging ideas and learning together. I saw beautiful recreation spaces, and footpaths for hiking. I saw Ashesi – a place where young men and women from all over Africa would gather to gain the knowledge, skill, and character necessary for moving their continent forward. I was absolutely excited.

And then I turned to my parents and I realized for the first time that my father looked skeptical.  And so, I asked him, “What do you think?” He hesitated. “Are you sure this is the right location? This is a very rocky, difficult terrain. You should consider another site.”

We got into an argument.

I later asked my mother why my dad was not being supportive. And she looked back at me, the way only mothers can, and said, “Kofi, he’s worried that this site is going to break you.” She also told me she, too, was worried, but she could see I that had fallen in love with this place.

And in that moment, she helped me see a different side of my father’s comments. As an Engineer, he looked at this site and realized just how challenging a task it would be to build a campus here. As a manager, he was concerned about the financial cost of building here. While I looked at the sky, he looked at the ground on which we stood. He shared his sentiments not to discourage me, but rather to help me increase the chances of Ashesi’s success. Behind his words, were the fears of a man who was concerned for his son; concern that he had shown for me when I was 1, when I was 6, when I was 16; and concern that he continued to show for me, even at 36. After I assured both my parents that I would not allow this project to break me, they put their full support behind the decision to locate Ashesi’s campus here.

There are a number of lessons from this story. First, the obvious one: parents don’t stop caring as you get older. Class of 2018, your parents are beyond thrilled for you today. But they will likely stay interested in your future endeavors and “get into your business”. Don’t ever forget how much your family loves you.

The second lesson is, intent matters. There are so many times when we seem to have disagreements with others, when a conversation, perhaps through an intermediary, would make all the difference. Those conversations cannot be done in a tweet or email. They require personal contact, they require time, and they require a willingness to really listen and to be vulnerable.

The third lesson from this story, comes from how the Ashesi project has unfolded since that argument with my father about where to locate our permanent campus. The truth is, my father was right when he said this project might break me; and it would have, if it was not for the incredible community that rose up to support this ambitious idea –a community of people from all over the world, who saw Ashesi’s goal of an African transformation, and believed we could make it happen. Without this dedicated community, we would not have overcome some of the difficult challenges we faced in creating this institution. The families who walked through Ashesi’s doors in 2001 to come learn more about us; the pioneer students, faculty and administrators who got this project underway; the many alumni who have defined the reputation of this institution through their hard work and effort; the staff and faculty whose dedication behind the scenes makes the hard work of Ashesi’s success look easy; the many friends of Ashesi who have contributed their time and financial resources to help this place grow brick by brick; the architects, consultants and construction teams, who cracked this terrain and managed to design and build for it. Without all these people, all this effort, all this support, we would not have achieved what I imagined for this place, let alone exceed it.

Keep dreaming, Class of 2018, because success always starts with imagination. But remember that as bold and brilliant as you may be, your success will depend on your ability to inspire the energies and contributions of others to your cause. Recognize the immense contributions of all the people who have helped you get to where you are; recognize those who will help you get to the next stage of your life and career, and the next, and the next. Wherever you go, what ever you do, build a team around you that you can depend on.

Fourth, I would like to remind you that dreaming is not enough. You must do. You must pick up the courage to act on your dreams. Taking the first step will require taking a risk. Taking the second, third, fourth, ninety ninth and hundredth steps will require the ability to get things wrong and still keep going. For those of you who will be graduating this year Cum Laude, you have had scored a lot of A’s throughout your academic career. That means you have managed to get things right at least 80 percent of the time. That is wonderful, but within that fact, also lies the danger that you will hesitate to do things that involve the risk of failure. You must learn to take the important first steps to act on your dreams, and then use your diligence to execute with excellence. Those of you who are not graduating with a record of being right 80 percent of the time, you’re in great shape! Keep doing what you have done here. Keep taking risks, persisting through difficulty and completing what you set out to do.

In a way, we are today, completing a project we set out to do: to build an independently run institution of higher learning – to build a great African University that would contribute towards nurturing exceptional leaders and citizens for future of our world. It has required persistence to come this far.

Yet, today also marks the beginning of a new project for us. Let us today resolve to grow Ashesi’s impact exponentially in the days to come. Class of 2018, understand that there were students who came before you, women and men, who have built the reputation of this University through the positive impact they are making through their dedication to our mission. Students who graduated before you did not receive Ashesi certificates; their certificates came from the University of Cape Coast. It is you, Class of 2018, who get to receive Ashesi certificates for the first time in our history.

As pioneer students today, I hope you will value the privilege and responsibility that this confers on you as a class, to be an exponential force for good in the world.

We are very proud of you and we look forward to your contributions in the days to come. Congratulations Class of 2018. I wish you well, and I wish you Godspeed in your life’s journey.

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