By Kristiana Raube
“Are you getting it?”
In unison, the students respond, “Yes, we are getting it.”
I share the small wooden desk with Ama, a 9th grade student in the small town of Berekuso, Ghana, as she scrawls in a small notebook decorated with photographs of Hannah Montana.
“If you eat well, the malaria will not pull you down.”
The teacher continues her nutrition lesson as the wind gently blows through the lattice cement block “windows,” swinging the crude wooden door, and making palm fronds brush the corrugated tin roof. Outside, I hear a goat bleating and several chickens scratching the dirt.
I lean over to Ama and ask to see her notebook. She had printed the question “describe compassion” at the top with a blue pen, and answered in black ink with phrases that seemed as if they had been written by a much younger student.
The government school here struggles with overcrowded classrooms (up to 90 students per classroom in the younger grades), few resources (one book is shared among seven students in Ama’s class), no library, poorly trained teachers and an outdated national exam for entrance to secondary school. Ama’s notebook had this sample question for the IT portion of the national exam: “What is a floppy disk?”
I thought of my 9th grade son, Ama’s American counterpart, and his recent paper analyzing Homer’s Iliad. Could Ama, attending school in a poor African village, ever reach college and get the skills to help transform Africa – much less compete with American students?
This is the very concrete challenge that a team of eight Berkeley-Haas students is trying to solve. On a hill just a short distance from Ama’s junior high school is a remarkable beacon of opportunity: the newly-built campus of Ashesi University College, founded by Berkeley-Haas MBA ’99 alum Patrick Awuah. Started in rented office space in the nearby capital of Accra just over ten years ago, Ashesi was built with the dream of educating a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders. Based on the model of liberal arts education, Ashesi emphasizes small class sizes, critical thinking, effective communication and practical experience.
It is working. Almost 100 percent of Ashesi’s graduates have found careers at international firms, Ghanaian enterprises, nonprofits or in the government. As Patrick Awuah said in his welcome address to the class of 2016, “Africa needs us to think differently.” Ashesi is helping its students to do just that.
But while the physical distance between Ashesi and Berekuso is small, the educational divide is vast. In an effort to bridge that distance, Ashesi promises free tuition for any Berekuso student who is able to meet the competitive admission requirements (for the class of 2016, 21% of applicants enrolled). Even with financial assistance, admission is a daunting challenge. How might Ama, educated in the local government school, meet those requirements?
That is what the team Berkeley-Haas MBA students is trying to answer during a semester-long consulting project. How could Ashesi help a student like Ama learn to think differently? What are the responsibilities, or even obligations, of Ashesi University College to the poor town in which it is located? How could better management, teaching, and facilities improve education, and ultimately lead to economic and social development?
The teacher asks again, “Are you getting it?”
Trying not to be overwhelmed by the complexity and vast nature of the problem, I briefly close my eyes to dream of a time when the differences between what I see at Ashesi University and the Berekuso school won’t be so large.