If I were asked, “Why do you bother sponsoring a foreign student?” I would reply, “Why not?” While a trite retort, it evokes in me many concrete responses that are challenging to explain.
While I have nominally assisted secondary students in several West African countries, my concentration has been on sponsoring a Ghanaian tertiary student from northern Ghana.
It began innocently enough, three years ago, when I simply accepted a friend request in social media. One thing led to another and I soon found myself absorbed in the life of a dedicated, hardworking and genuine student. Of course he was poor. His father passed away when he was a child, leaving him to be raised by a mother who farmed and sold produce for their only income. To her eternal credit, she saw the need for education for her son. When an uncle proposed taking the child to live in an outlying village, saying, “I will make him a farmer” his mother flatly refused. She said, “No. He will become a student.”
Alidu (not his real name) was later enrolled following his secondary graduation, into a technical college to pursue his degree program in Information, Communications and Technology (ICT). The eight-hours one way bus trip to the south of Ghana required boarding at his school. He found a roommate to share a tiny “hostel” the term for an off-campus apartment. After school tuition and fees were paid in advance, they shared the cost of a staple-foods supply for an entire semester.
By Western standards, the costs of education and room and board were nominal. Thank heavens for an exchange rate of approximately 1:4. I was able to cover costs with my meager earnings as a small-city elected official. What followed was two and one-half years of exchanging notes by email, chat on WhatsApp and Skype. I occasionally helped with proofing written assignments and suggested minor alterations to help make them conform to U.K. English. Even though English is the official language of Ghana, English was always a second language for him, as he spoke a native tribal dialect as do many Ghanaians. He later delivered presentations before large gatherings, something he had never anticipated.
My major role was being a constant source of encouragement. I adopted him as a “remote” grandson, as surely as if he were family. I grew to love him and routinely tell him so. Following the death of the favorite uncle — who had once offered to make Alidu a farmer — he simply stated, “I now have only three members in my family. God, my mother and you.” I was instantly brought to tears. I had never planned to become a member of his family.
A few days before he completed course requirements for his graduation in June 2017, he confided in me to say that when we had first established communications, some two and one-half years before, he was without funds and was discouraged. He said he seriously considered leaving his school and returning home to help his mother in her gardening. He said my encouragement kept him going those remaining years of his tertiary education. I was dumbfounded.
Although Alidu has called me a mentor, I have learned equally from this young man. I now know a good deal about him, his country, his local region, his friends, his family, and its customs. I even learned new weather terms and seasons, which apply to weather patterns experienced only in West Africa.
For those who would take the chance to sponsor an education for foreign students, I would encourage you to do so. The life rewards and lasting friendships that I have gained in the process are priceless. Students are, and remain, our best hope for a better world.