Vanessa Nyarko is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, studying journalism and history. She covers St. Paul and the environment for the campus paper, The Minnesota Daily.

Valuing Education

How My Grandma in Ghana Helped Me Reclaim My American Dream

April 2014

BY VANESSA NYARKO

I’d been in college at the University of Minnesota just shy of four months when it hit me. “Why am I not happy?” I asked myself. “I finally made it here, but what now?”

This had been my dream–a chance to make something of myself.  College was something some people could only dream of.  But here I was, lying on a hard mattress in my dorm room, looking above me at the decaying white ceiling covered with glow-in-the-dark stars, wondering, “Why don’t I enjoy learning anymore?”

Let me backtrack a bit.

My story starts in Accra, Ghana where I was born in 1994. But at the age of two my parents left to study abroad and work in the United States, to start a better life. They left me in the temporary care of my wonderful grandmother. She was one of the most intelligent and fantastic people I knew growing up so that’s how my childhood ended up: fantastic. My brother and I called her “Antieakua.” She was pulled out of school in third grade to work on her father’s farm in the mountains of Ghana. Although she lacked formal education, she was wiser than most. She taught me how to cook, as best a toddler could, and how to survive in the bustling city of Accra. When we’d go to the marketplace to buy food she’d teach me all of her bartering tricks. The vendors were always confused by my advanced hustling tactics.

At the same time, I taught Antieakua how to read my books, and shared with her all the other lessons I learned in school. My grandmother would constantly tell me that since she never had the opportunity to finish school, she wanted to make sure that I learned everything in the world to make up for her loss.

Over in the States, my mom and dad were both working to pay for my brother’s and my expensive private school in Ghana. They wanted the best education for us that we could possibly get because, just like my grandmother, education is everything to my parents. Eventually, they decided to bring my brother and me to America for that very reason—to better our educational opportunities.

So, at the age of seven I packed up my favorite books and crossed the Atlantic. I landed in Chicago. I loved the Windy City–the sights, the people and even the signs. Every opportunity I got, I read billboards, posters, flyers, etc.  I’d even write down what I saw and read and then share my new learning adventures with Antieakua when she called. We’d speak about book fairs and bake sale flyers I took from school; she’d just laugh and tell me to keep it up.

My parents enrolled me in South Loop Elementary School in downtown Chicago; I thought it’d be like my old school, but I was extremely wrong. It turned out that not everyone in this part of town was all about learning like me. For example, no one seemed to think the concept of “book club” was nearly as interesting as I did. I went every Wednesday because I was a book fanatic, but on the bus ride home, the kids would make fun of me for it, call me names, and throw my books on the floor. After a while I just sat in the front and stopped reading on the bus; I couldn’t afford any more of the library fees I was being charged for the constant destruction of my rented books. I didn’t understand why these kids were trying to ruin the things that were going to help them gain knowledge.

I went to a predominately African American elementary school but the kids there considered me–a “brand new” African American–to be odd or strange. I always volunteered in class, finished my worksheets first, and asked for additional work. I didn’t find this to be out of the ordinary because that’s what my friends back home and I did. I didn’t know it was “weird.” Most of The other kids in my class didn’t read; they just drew on the books, and they’d intentionally cheat on their worksheets. They didn’t even participate in art class; they’d just argue with the teacher and make fun of the historic paintings the teacher would show us. I remember the Mona Lisa, in particular, was cause for great ridicule.

I’d think to myself, “Why are all of these kids of African descent, who have parents of African descent like me, so repulsed by their studies? Don’t their parents stress the importance of education like mine do?” I didn’t understand why they never tried in school, and I couldn’t grasp the concept that some of them never did their homework. It got to be a lonely existence for me at school.

So, I decided if I couldn’t beat them, I was going to join them. I, too, stopped doing my homework, stopped volunteering to read, and I even failed worksheets on purpose. I got what I wanted instead: friends.

My teachers, however, quickly caught wind of this ill-conceived plan and alerted my parents. They weren’t angry, just disappointed. They reminded me of my cousins and old classmates in Ghana who’d give anything to have what I had here. They told me I was blowing it big time, and if I continued doing this I was only going to hurt myself.  Education, they said, is the one thing people can’t take from you. I could continue to be like my new friends, or I could be different.

I chose to be different and resumed my studies with renewed focus. But my brief rebellion scared my parents, and we moved out of Chicago into the suburbs. I went through elementary and middle doing well and getting grades that made my parents and grandmother very happy.

When high school began, I moved up to the honors program and I finally found people I could actually relate to—but interestingly most of them also had immigrant parents who drove them to excel as well. My best friend Nsude, whose parents came from Nigeria, and I would talk about how our parents hated C’s and even B’s. Another classmate of mine, who emigrated from Mexico, always went above and beyond in her studies as a way of thanking her mother for bringing her to America.

Everyone in the honors program was gifted in some way but it always seemed to me that the students with non-native parents were trying harder. Maybe they were doing it to please their parents, or maybe they didn’t take education for granted; all I know is that they appeared more determined than the students with parents from the United Sates.

Eventually, Antieakua moved to America to stay with us. Her presence served to focus me even more on the importance of my studies. She was so interested in everything I learned and it made me want to learn even more, just so I could impress her. I attacked my schoolwork with renewed vigor, just because of my number one fan. My grandma’s interest in the news inspired me to consider journalism as a major. We always watched newscasts on TV together and I would translate the things she didn’t understand. It gave me a love for reporting.

As senior year began, I sent off my applications to college, ultimately deciding on the University of Minnesota due to its diverse range of majors, among many other reasons. I finally made it to college and I was thrilled – and perhaps relieved—that I’d finally passed on through to the level of “higher education.” My family was overjoyed. They thought I was unstoppable. Little did they know I was losing my mojo to learn.

Fast-forward to me again on my dorm bed that day. I thought of people I’d met since college started, and what appeared to me to be their indifference to education. They seemed to fall into categories: those who came for the “college experience” (a.k.a. partying, being away from home, doing what they wanted for the first time without parental guidance); those who perfunctorily went to class and performed satisfactorily (at best) because they simply wanted their degrees; and those who came from wealthy backgrounds who claimed they had post-graduation jobs lined up due to their parents’ connections–that college attendance was simply a stepping stone to their inevitable career ascendency.

Few seemed to have a survival instinct—a need to succeed because failure would be devastating. A need to succeed because education is an honor, not a privilege.

I felt I was the only one in my freshmen “Welcome Week” orientation who was excited to start classes–and not drink. I didn’t drink or smoke in high school so I didn’t understand the fascination.  But then I seemed to revert back to grade school at South Loop Elementary because I began to join them just to fit in. I began to go to too many parties, have too many drinks, and skip classes, just to feel accepted. And I knew that if my family knew about this change, they’d be extremely disappointed.

Just two days later I got a call from my grandma. She’d gone back to Ghana after I came to college; she felt she’d seen me through school. She told me, once again, just how proud she was of me. She said that, even though she’d never made it to college she now felt complete, because I had.

I hung up the phone thinking about my grandma doing hard labor as a 10-year-old, in the mountains of Eastern Ghana. I simply couldn’t picture myself doing the things Antieakua had to do, including giving up an education in the third grade. Comparing her experience to my experience, I realized—for the first time–that I was way luckier than anyone else I’d met on campus.

I got off my dorm bed, walked out my dorm door, and headed to class. Better late than absent.

I’m not saying that rest of my college experience will be perfect from here on out; I may fall into those bad habits on occasion. But I know I can always draw on Antiekua’s strength, feel her sacrifice, and call her for support. And it pushes me back on my path.

Vanessa Nyarko can be reached at nyark002@umn.edu

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