The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Ashesi University College, after the first semester (by Suzanne)

[Ashesi Computer Science Department: Nathan, Aelaf, Gymfi & Suzanne]

I’ve had some queries about Ashesi, and why I haven’t written about it for the blog since before classes started. Some are wondering if I hate it or if something is wrong. No, it is not that at all! I think I am just so immersed in it that it is difficult to encapsulate in a nice, neat little blog entry. But I will try to put down some thoughts, mostly to assure those of you who are worried that something is wrong, and for those who are interested in my experiences as a lecturer at Ashesi University College.

[Suzanne in her office – Aelaf’s desk is to the left]

I continue to really enjoy my experience at Ashesi. It is the major part of my time in Ghana, so a lot of how I see Ghana I am seeing through the lens of Ashesi. For those of you who don’t know or who have forgotten, Ashesi is a new(ish) liberal arts college in Ghana, the first of its kind – it’s kind being small class sizes, an American-styled curriculum (which means that students are assigned homework and papers regularly, which are graded and used as a means of evaluation – as opposed to a single exam at the end of the semester), and in addition to scholarship, there is an emphasis on moral leadership, and citizenship as well. As I mentioned in my first blog entry about Ashesi, it didn’t take too long before I realized how truly radical this is for Ghana. There is a lot about leadership in Ghana that is “broken” – judicial, governmental, corporate, academic - you name it. Corruption at all levels is a real problem here. Often, if you need something or need something done that isn’t immediately forthcoming, produce a ”dash” (bribe or gift) and you are on your way. Patrick Awuah, the founder and President of the University, told me a story – he was in the process of founding Ashesi, but starting as University can be a bit of a Catch-22 situation – you can’t have a University without accreditation, but you can’t get accreditation without a University. So, he and his team put together a “virtual” University, with a curriculum and courses and contracts for lecturers, with the understanding that if they got the provisional accreditation they needed, then they would actually implement what was on paper. They did get the accreditation, but then they needed to enroll students quite quickly to make it all work. Not to worry, they were following the business plan Patrick had developed. He had a multi stage advertising plan to attract students, including print and radio media, television, and billboards, timed perfectly to keep the market saturated and to take advantage of the “free” media (news articles) that they were benefiting from, with the whole campaign culminating in television ads. So, the news media did stories, and then came the newspaper ads and billboards, and then… no television ads. He called, and was told yes, the ad would air, and then, … it didn’t air. This went on for several weeks, until he was told that the ad manager expected a dash to air the ad (the ad was paid for, the dash was above and beyond, payable directly to the guy at the station in charge of the commercials). Patrick reports that he thought hard about it – no ads, potentially no students, no University. The timing was important, they had already lost momentum. Was this a “ditch to die in?” (the Ghanaian term is something like a “hill to take?”). He decided… it was. If he couldn’t even air ads to attract students to his University without paying bribes, he decided there was no hope for Ghana, no point to it at all. So, he didn’t pay the bribe, and after some weeks the station aired the ads anyway, Ashesi did attract their first class of students (which graduated this past May) and the rest is history. BTW, Patrick was just named one of 250 Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum in Geneva last week – he actually has an impressive number of awards and recognitions to his name, but this is the most recent.

There still is a lot of “dashing” that goes on in Ghana, but what Ashesi is working toward is training a new generation of leaders that will value honesty, integrity, and competence over money and influence. It’s a radical idea, even perhaps idealistic to think that it can be done, and that Ashesi may do it. It’s an attempt to change the country from the bottom up, as it were (well, not exactly the bottom – very few Ghanaians make it to college – I just heard the statistic that only 5% of college-aged Ghanaians are enrolled in university - so, more from the educated 20-year-olds on up). Most of the top Ghanaian students go to university in England or the States, and often stay there, not returning to Ghana to live out the lessons they have learned in other countries (the “brain drain”). Why? It’s just too hard, there is too much to do. It seems an impossible task. With Ashesi, the hope is that some of the top students will stay in Ghana, and then transform the country by their “radical” moral leadership.

[Klaus, Ama, Jessica: 2007 CS students]

[Aelaf and me at graduation]

Speaking of students, I have also gotten a lot of queries about the students and classes at Ashesi. In many ways, lecturing at Ashesi is not that different from lecturing at Southwestern, or Austin Community College or The University of Texas. There are classes to be prepped, students to lecture to and interact with, assignments to make up and then grade, office hours to keep, students to encourage into considering graduate school or to scare into shaping up, or just students to help make their way through an assignment. There are some differences, though. Since Ashesi is definitely putting itself out there as different (than The University of Ghana at Legon, for example, in which lectures can be so large that there is not enough space for all the enrolled students, and students are admitted first-come, first-served, and a lecturer has no choice but to talk at the crowd instead of interact with the crowd), there is an emphasis placed on continual interaction with students during the lecture. This isn’t that different than at Southwestern, really, and with the help of a Teaching Seminar I went to in June, I have been working at making my classes even more interactive and active-learning based, which has been successful. I learned also from Aelaf, my co-teacher for Computer Organization in the fall, who is also my office mate and a full-time lecturer at Ashesi. He’s a great fellow, originally from Ethiopia, schooled in India, and we get along quite well I think. Co-teaching with Aelaf was a good experience. I learned from his teaching style, and I hope he learned from mine. Also, because the classrooms just have one small whiteboard, there is also an emphasis on using PowerPoint slides, which is new to me in a lecture setting (and can be counter to active learning), so it has been an interesting exercise for me to learn how to deliver lectures using PowerPoint and yet engage the students continuously, again I would say largely successful. It seems that the students appreciate having the PowerPoint slides to refer back to and review, and it frees them up in class to engage instead of constantly take notes, so I guess I’m a bit of a PowerPoint convert. Currently, all students take the same classes up until their second year, at which point they break into CS, BA, and MIS cohorts. And then these cohorts of students all take essentially the same courses as well. Each class meets for 4 ½ contact hours per week, 3 “lecture” and 1 ½ “discussion/lab/practical” (well, the Comp Organization lab often ran 2 or more hours…). I love having the lab time (look out, Southwestern colleagues, I may come back wanting to make changes)! Last semester I had 2007 students in 2 classes and 2008 students in 1, and this semester I have 2008 students in 1 class and 2009 students in another. This semester I will also help with the Programming I labs, which are 2010 students, and will help conduct admissions interviews, and will oversee a “Creativity Session”. All the classes I am teaching here I have taught before, but in each case using a different book, materials, software, language, etc. So, although none are new preps for me, I am working hard prepping them in this setting, with these constraints. I had a TA last semester for one class and a TA this semester for another, which is nice, although I end up doing most of the grading myself since I want to know how they are doing, the mistakes they are making, etc. But, having a TA is definitely nice. Enrollment at Ashesi has just reached capacity at its current (urban) location with the incoming class of 2010, which admitted 102 students (100 was the target), Overall enrollment is a little over 300 plus NYU and study abroad students, but will reach 400 by 2009. There is currently a 5-year plan to build and move to the 100 acres of land they have purchased just north of town. This would be a proper, residential campus, complete with student and visiting faculty housing, library, and all facilities, at which point enrollment could expand to 1200-1500 students over time, and the number of majors could expand accordingly. For now, since Ashesi is new with limited faculty and facilities (Ashesi rents a smattering of buildings in the expensive area of Accra), they are limited to three majors (Business, Computer Science, and MIS) and the enrollment capacity of 400. It boggles my mind, though, to try and consider all the details that Patrick and his staff are facing in trying to implement the 5-year plan, of which a tiny piece is fundraising. Getting water, sewage facilities, electricity, and even a road into the site are just the first stumbling blocks. I can’t even imagine. My family and I went and toured the site (hiked through the jungle!) at Christmas break with a bunch of the just graduated 2006 students. It will be magnificent!

[View of Ashesi land (the hill) from the Chief’s residence]
[Near the top of the Ashesi hill]
[Heading down the hill]
[David, one of those hardworking facilities guys, giving Suzanne a hand down the hill]

I have many impressions of the students, but understand it’s a relatively small sample size – last semester I had just 21 students out of almost 300, this semester I have some of the previous, plus about 20 more. Also realize that generalizations are just that – not applicable to all. But, here we go. First off, my Ashesi students are pretty confident and quite competent, and are quite engaged in the classroom. No doubt that they are at least as “sharp” as my Southwestern University students. The curriculum at Ashesi (put together by an impressive committee of professors from Swarthmore, UC Berkeley, U of Washington, etc.) is quite rigorous, so they are well-trained. However, an A here is 80% and above, and you can pass a class (without having to re-take it) with a grade of 40% (!), and below 50% the student has the option of retaking – this probably contributes to the relative lack of homework completion, for example. So, while the curriculum is rigorous, there are issues of students passing the classes without completely mastering the material. The good news for me, since I tend to give pretty tough assignments and exams, is I don’t need to curve, or even feel guilty about how tough it is! My software engineering class in the fall did presentations at mid semester, and they were the best batch of class presentations I have ever seen. Keep in mind that these students have self-selected to be at Ashesi – they are the students who wanted something different for themselves, who didn’t want to be at The University of Ghana and not work all semester and then cram for the final exam, or dash their way out of it. So, I think these are the “go-getters” of the Ghanaian college set. At the same time, since English is not their first language, the batch of papers I got with the presentations was probably the worst batch of papers I have seen. I need to qualify that, though, since many of the papers were very well-organized and thoughtfully communicated and/or argued – for most students, it was the English grammar that was the biggest issue. Well, that, and the face that CS majors worldwide don’t just love to write papers, I think. There is also a lot of “students are students, everywhere” issues. There is some laziness, some “Oh, Dr. Buchele, we are SO overworked!”, and lots of procrastination. Even one instance of academic dishonesty, that was resolved in a similar fashion to how it would have been at Southwestern. But, there is also the joy of discovery, the passion for learning, the goofiness, the camaraderie, the humble appreciation of a professor making time to help a student, that also falls into the “students are students, everywhere” that I so enjoy. It’s wonderful to see this in Ghana, and get this glimpse that maybe the human condition isn’t so different here. And that maybe this batch of students can change the human condition here, as they get into the workforce and into leadership positions in Ghana. That is the vision of Ashesi University College, and one I can see working. I do expect many of these students to become leaders someday. The long term vision goes even further. The long-term vision is for Ashesi to become the “Swarthmore of Africa”, which (in my opinion) is possible. And that maybe Ashesi would be the first of such Universities in Africa. Talk about transforming a continent! How exciting!

[2007 CS students helping themselves to Texas Chili]
[Suzanne talking with the students after dinner in the dining area]
[Suzanne and students in our living room]
The faculty/staff at Ashesi are also an interesting bunch. There are not so many opportunities to see each other and interact – I actually intend to propose a monthly faculty/staff lunch to help facilitate more interaction. I guess it’s also the case that “people are busy, everywhere”. But, we make our own opportunities to chat – eating at the school canteen or going out to lunch, and invitations to each others’ houses for dinner. One group has a regular (several times a year) ethnic food night that Steve and I were invited to, in which everyone researches food dishes of a particular ethnicity and meets at someone’s house and they all cook together and chat. Early in the fall it was Cuban food, which was very fun and very tasty. We did another one at our house near the end of last semester. The theme? American Thanksgiving! Our Ghanaian and Ethiopian (Aelaf) and Guatemalan (Andres) friends really enjoyed learning about the traditional American Thanksgiving foods, and us Americans enjoyed cooking and eating it as well!

[A nicely cooked turkey]
[Janice making apple pie]
[Matt and Nii discussing the subtleties of a recipe, or perhaps the world’s problems]
[The spread of food]
[Nii and Aelaf breaking the wishbone, with Andres’ supervision]
[Patrick and Adzo (Dean of Students) were latecomers due to a Trustees meeting, but we saved them some]
Speaking of food, the canteen at school is wonderful! There are actually two, one at building one and the other at building. My office is in building three, but I teach at the other two buildings. The canteen is in the kitchen of the buildings, which are converted houses, from which food is served, cooked by local women who contract the canteen space from the University. We eat outside on plastic tables and chairs, or in a screened porch with wooden picnic tables. You can get a heaping plate of delicious Ghanaian food for 10,000 cedis (about a dollar). For awhile I cut down on eating at the canteen because I was coming home at dinner time not very hungry, and then Steve had cooked a wonderful dinner that I wasn’t hungry for, and I’d either not eat much and hurt his feelings, or eat much and gain weight. Now, I’ve decided that I just need to eat less at lunch so I have resumed my eating at the canteen, but either ask for a small serving or don’t eat it all, or both. What type of food, you ask? Mostly fried chicken (with apologies to my doctor, I have come to appreciate chicken deep fried in palm oil) and rice with a spicy sauce, or beef or bean stew with fried plantain (gotta love that palm oil), or something called palava sauce which is made out of the leaves of a plant that is similar to spinach, also rich in palm oil. Really tasty, I assure you!

[Suzanne and Aelaf at Canteen 2]
The facilities at Ashesi are excellent by Ghanaian standards, and definitely fine by American. For example, Steve went into the library at the University of Ghana at Legon last semester and said it was the saddest library experience he had ever had. Nothing past the 1990’s – even the most recent periodicals were from the 1990’s or 1970’s (yes, even the ones in the “Current Periodicals” section), and no computers. At Ashesi the library is small but very well-stocked with recent books and current magazines, periodicals and newspapers – recent by comparison – it’s pretty impossible to get anything that isn’t a month to six weeks old, just due to shipping issues.

[Plate of red-red (beans) and fried plantain]
There are two computer labs, each with 12-25 good computers and a virtual file system for student and faculty file storage. The University itself is an urban campus, consisting of 3 buildings (although each building is actually a cluster of 2-3 buildings) about a 1 ½ blocks apart in a largely residential neighborhood. Each building is a large house that has been converted to classrooms, offices, and compute labs. Each building (and the student dorms as well) has a generator that will kick on when the power goes out (when “the light is out”) which is pretty often, especially with Ghana’s “load shedding” of late (BTW, the load shedding changed and hasn’t yet reverted, which is great – instead of the light being out every 3 days for 12 hours, alternating day and night, they have reorganized so that now the light is out every 5 days, for a 12-hour evening period only. Good, but sleeping can be awfully sticky without a fan). The facilities guys at Ashesi are incredible – very hard-working and constantly on top of things, which you need to be in an “infrastructure challenged” place like Ghana (phone lines are down in building two; the air conditioners stopped working in the building one computer lab; plumbing issues in building three; ceiling fan needs replacement in building three; the transformer just blew in building three; building two seems to have lost its intranet connection; water is out in building one, etc., etc., - a typical week). The internet here is much slower than what we’re used to in the States, when it’s up. It’s up definitely more than half the time, much more even, but when it’s down, you feel it, so it seems like more. And some of you may have received bounced email messages when the email server is down. Its been amazing to me to realize how accustomed I am to having the internet at my fingertips – not just for email, but for information. You just can’t leave things to the last minute here, since you never know if the net will be up or down. It sounds like Ashesi may move back to their VSAT system from Ghana Telecom – they wanted to give Ghana Telecom a try, since they started offering broadband and to help support the company, but the internet outages have been frustrating for everyone, I think. For example, the last three days I finally received outside email after a lapse of about 10 days (so, if you sent me something that bounced, you’re not alone. Just keep re-sending, or send to my Southwestern account which I check weekly or so).

[Building 3, with Eleanora (the Registrar)]

All in all my experience so far at Ashesi has been wonderful. It will be very hard to leave, and even when I do, the school, it’s mission, and the people will remain in my heart for a long time to come. In fact, I’m already planning my next sabbatical – the year after Anna graduates from High School! A good time to return to Ghana, I think. I’m also beginning to brainstorm other projects that might help me to get Southwestern students here. It has been a very broadening experience for me, and I know it would be for students as well.

[Building 3, with Eleanora and David (facilities guy)]


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