In 2005 when Mohammed Adawulai, an exchange student from West Africa, came to meet his host family in the Berkshires, he brought with him a new suitcase with little in it. His most valuable possession was his desire for an education.
"When you come to America you come to get something. You don’t bring anything," he says. "I spent a couple of months trying to figure out where the Berkshires was in comparison to Boston or Washington."
His achievements in these last few years have been impressive.
This past May, Adawulai graduated magna cum laude from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and shared the commencement stage with Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Adawulai, 22, from Kete-Krachi in the Volta region of Ghana, credits PAX, one of a number of nonprofit, academic exchange programs administered by the U.S. Department of State, with his success, as well as the support of the school community and the perseverance of his host family.
After Bernanke finished his address, which highlighted the optimism he saw for world economies, Adawulai stepped up to the podium to give his speech. With matched hopefulness for the contributions he and his fellow classmates will make during their careers, Adawulai implored them to mind the gaps.
"Increasingly, the gap between the global north and the global south has become wider. The poor nations keep getting poorer and the wealthy ones keep getting richer," he said. "Now I say this mindful of the fact that ultimately individuals and nations must take responsibility for themselves.
"But you do not need to be a rocket scientist to see that many of the world’s poorest people are also the world’s most hard working people."
Adawulai, who hopes to continue his studies of government policy, economics and world affairs at the graduate level in Washington, D.C., became interested in the gap between GDP indicators and real indicators of growth for individuals and focused on those issues for his BA thesis.
He was particularly interested in the disconnect between national prosperity and regional and individual prosperity.
"Ghana is one of the five fastest growing economies in the world. We understand this because of its increase in investors in the region. But in reality it just doesn’t add up. And you can say that about every nation. There are disparities between real growth and national growth," he said.
"GDP is a measure that fluctuates based on investors and is reflected in national growth, but it doesn’t tell the whole story."
Adawulai’s journey to United States started in a classroom in Ghana, where he heard a teacher speak about the academic exchange organizations administered through the State Department.
"I had seen America on TV. I knew I wanted to be there. I applied, took the exam and then had an interview. Thousands apply, and I made it through the process," he said.
And then he had to tell his mother.
"It was a weird moment," he said. "I didn’t tell my family about any of it. [PAX] called my uncle’s phone to tell them I had been selected. It was easier to keep the bar low instead of raising their hopes."
Ultimately, his parents were happy he’d been given the opportunity to go out into the world.
But even with rigorous preparation for students who will be traveling to new lands, as well as orientations for the host families who offer them shelter, the culture differences can be unsettling.For Adawulai, at first even minor things presented challenges.
"When I first came I saw a huge divide between the way children are brought up here and the way they are brought up in Ghana," he said. "Some of my earliest experiences were as simple as not putting your arms around guys. You don’t do that here."
Of course, there were big differences, as well.
"I didn’t know anyone who identified [as gay or lesbian] before," he said. "I have met people from India, China, Egypt. Š Naturally, you find yourself challenged at first, coming from a community that is predominantly black to being immersed in a community that is so diverse. But as you begin to talk to people and get to know them you realize how much you have in common."
Settling into family life was thorny at times. Adawulai lived with four families in five years.
"The families I met were good people, it just wasn’t always smooth," he said. "It’s supposed to be challenging, and my goal was to treat them like my own parents. I think that’s the key. Most of us expect difficulties, especially when it’s all new. Š But I’ve learned a lot from those families, and all of them came to my graduation."
The education system is different in Ghana, too. Adawulai said it lacks academic flexibility and relies more heavily on rote understanding. Students have to declare the career path they will take by the time they enter high school.
"In Ghana, I was a science student. It wasn’t my interest, but it was my aptitude. In the States, I took courses in politics and world affairs, and this is what I really want to do," he said.
"Simon’s Rock is a unique institution. It is deeply committed to academic excellence and the idea that your thinking and analysis is critical to promoting academic excellence. It’s not about what you write, it’s what you think about what you write that really matters."