A Ghanian PhD student at Michigan Tech reflects on the kindness of the school community after a harrowing journey
My trepidation of studying in the US descended loosely from hearing a story of how one could be shot at when he mistakenly walks on a private property. I perceived an “I mind my own business” attitude by people of the West. Some Westerners seem to think Africa is a country with people living in trees and petting lions, stricken with poverty and incurable diseases. I was told that people of color were not smiled at in the West, contrary to the ‘smile, kneel and greet elders’ philosophy I grew up with.
Had these qualms mutated into terrifying thoughts just as a microsatellite polymorphism causes mutations? My study of genetics has taught me that mutations can be bad, and yet showed me that it is these same mutations that trigger evolution. Because of my experiences at Michigan Technological University, my thoughts have evolved.
My first time traveling out of my country, Ghana, was the day I flew to the United States on Oct. 8, 2016. I was detained for more than 10 hours at the Washington Dulles International Airport with no food and I was experiencing cold weather for the first time. I was detained at the first checkpoint and the fear of deportation that threatened me was my only companion. I was confined because my I-20 form was cancelled because the fall semester had already started and I could not report on time. It was a Saturday and so no one was in the office at Michigan Tech to confirm that I was a student. My adviser by then had gone to Romania for a program and his phone could not be reached. My heart jumped into my mouth, my hair stood on end and my feet were cold. I sat in the lobby like an alien-refugee deprived of the sun. I felt like a hanging bat—trapped in between—not in U.S., not in Ghana. Then I realized that my dreams of studying in U.S. had developed a terminal illness about to die. I was in this torture and stress for more than 10 hours only to hear: “We have not been able to reach your school; you shall return to your country immediately when we secure the next flight back to Ghana.”
My prayers were that the next plane to Ghana would never arrive until the school responds. My long hours of waiting finally paid off when suddenly I was congratulated by the immigration officer after I came from the washroom where I had done 50 push-ups to keep me warm from the cold. He said, “Congratulations, someone intervened on your behalf from your school.” I shouted, “Oh God! I am saved.” Who is the stranger that saved me? That strange savior, I later realized, was the Associate Dean of School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science (SFRES), Andrew Storer, who was on a trip in the UK. Even on his trip he had time for me. It felt like he was the one who took the rope off my neck. This was the beginning for my evolutionary thoughts.
I got to Houghton around 12:30 a.m., and there was Sudhir Kodwekar, a Michigan Tech student from India I randomly contacted for help, to pick me up. This was his second visit to the airport that day when he realized I was not in the earlier flight. Even though I could not contact him because I did not have a US phone, he still made a second return to be sure I was in there. Little did I know that this extraordinary colleague would become like family to me.
My adviser, Oliver Gailing, not only mentored and trained me but made me feel free to express my own ideas and thoughts. I feel I have been nurtured at Michigan Tech.
I was amazed by the SFRES Friday coffee hours where students both graduate and undergraduates, janitors, administrators and professors sit, drink and talk freely, unhampered by caste or social position. The openness of people and the continued smiles are a secret weapon that I believe keep all Michigan Tech inhabitants young with dazzling beauty. This warmth can only be felt at Michigan Tech.
I met Jacque Smith, the director of graduate programs, when the Ghanian government was delaying payment of my tuition that led to the hold on my account. Because of the amazing collaboration between him, Andrew Storer and SFRES Dean Terry Sharik, the problem was solved with no traces of smoke. They got the government to pay and freed me from the mental torture that was inhibiting my studies.
"I like to say at this point, talk to people when you have a problem in Michigan Tech, and they not only listen but try to solve the problem."
Space will not enable me to express about how this wonderful school has reprogrammed me into a new being. The stories I heard before coming here were deceitful. My experiences have led to an astonishing mediation on the limits of my self-awareness, which have now raised me into a new person.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.