Mandela Washington Fellows will use knowledge gained at Texas Tech to help build a brighter future for their home countries.
Predicting the future is usually reserved for fantasy novels and movies, but creating a positive trajectory is very much grounded in reality.
Akwasi, a Ghana native, was one of 24 Mandela Washington Fellows hosted by Texas Tech this summer. Since the program's inception in 2014, in conjunction with the Young African Leaders Initiative, more than 5,800 participants have spent time in the United States. This is a select and prestigious group, because the whole concept is to cultivate leaders between the ages of 25 and 35 from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Participants must endure a rigorous interview process, sometimes multiple times before they're accepted. The candidates start the application process in September find out if they have been accepted in March and arrive in the United States in June.
“I grew up in a middle-income family of five,” said Akwasi. “It was all about education, get good grades, get out there and do something for yourself.”
Education is important to Akwasi and something he credits his parents for instilling in him at a young age.
“The community we grew up in we were mostly first-generation university kids,” he said, “and our parents understood the importance of education to take us to the next level.
“It was really competitive in school, and then you come home and its competitive among your peers as well.”
Akwasi has more than 11 years of experience in the agriculture sector and holds a master's degree in agricultural and environmental science from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.
He has been a part of startups, an ecommerce business and has done his required national service to Ghana. He is a technical officer and sustainability manager at the Ghana Cocoa Board. Akwasi went through the interview process for Mandela Washington Fellowship twice and was accepted on his second try.
Even with such an accomplished and distinguished resume Akwasi remains humble and in awe of his fellows in the cohort.
“Each and every one of the fellows is a champion in their own field,” he said. “You think you're doing good where you are, but when you speak with someone you realize, Oh, I need to do more.”
This level of humility and determination has been the driving force in Akwasi's life and career. He tackles tasks with tenacity and drives out any doubt. His focused approach has borne fruit during his professional career.
“I had learned about entrepreneurism and business. I thought, why not learn something else, like public management and how it can affect venture production”, he said.
That's exactly why Akwasi came to Texas Tech- because public management was the university's sole focus for this year's Mandela Washinton participants.
The program has equipped Akwasi with even more resources and experiences to add to his already seasoned professional credentials.
“I believe this is a network I am going to carry for the rest of my life,” he said. “These are individuals from 20 different African countries that I wouldn't have met if it wasn't for this fellowship.”
Akwasi said he has sacrificed for the fellowship opportunity, as have all the participants who left home to travel to another continent for a month and a half.
His sacrifice came at a greater price than most, though, as he and his wife welcomed their son while he was on the fellowship.
“I was here, and my son was born on the 3rd of July. I missed the birth of my son,” he said silently. ‘I hope he forgives me and my wife as well. I hope she forgives me for not being there. –
“But during this period, I've begun to see the importance of community… community has been strong. My older sister was there, my mom, my dad, my younger brothers, and my wife's family. Everybody was there for her, so even though I wasn't there I had a community that was.”
For Akwasi, the family extended beyond relatives.
“And I have a family here in terms of the fellows,” he smiles. They were so supportive during that period.”
The fellows have created a sense of community among themselves, bonding over their differences, shared experiences, and things they have in common. They have built a network not only among themselves but also within Lubbock.
“It is really wonderful to see the amount of support from the community,” said Allison Jennings, manager for the leadership institutes for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. “We heard that from the partners in the first year, that people were interested. But by year three, even actually by year two, but by year three or four, there is a clamoring in the community.”
The fellows continue to leave a lasting impression on Texas Tech and Lubbock.
The fellows regularly receive praise from Texas Tech staff and partners of the program. As they return to their home countries, some of which are younger than Texas Tech itself, the fellows are looking to implement what they have learned. In that way, they can create opportunities and help their countries flourish for the future.