#MIghTyAfrican origins: Tertiary Education at MIT

Ato Ulzen-Appiah
6 min readJan 21, 2019

I was approached by Derrick Obeng of Campus Radio Ghana to join their Success Drive Whatsapp platform to be featured, share, answer questions, etc. This happened on January 11, 2019. I loved the conversation I had with the NUGS Volta Region Bloc Women’s Platform to share and discuss volunteeringh, following after Barcamp Ho coordinator Courage Christson Tetteh had done something similar with them earlier. Pamela Klutse made that one happen and I blogged about it as well. 2 awesome people who all were part of the Barcamp Ho 2018 organizing team. We discussed many things on the Success Drive show, it was like a hot seat — #KonnectKouch (watch this space). Edith Bannerman, the host, asked me: “So studying at MIT and Stanford? How did that go?” I picked up #MightyAfrican from my tertiary education in the US. Let’s dig into that. I hope you find some oil you can use.

Studying at both places was great and fun. I did civil engineering at MIT for my first degree and my closest friends were all African though I had other friends. I chose to study civil engineering because I was awesome at math, liked engineering and was passionate about development. It was great being surrounded by some of the most brilliant young students and professors from the whole wide world. This challenged me to be even better and learn from them. I especially loved D-Lab, run by Amy Smith. It was great to work on problems that affected my cultural neighbourhood in arguably the best engineering academic institution in the world. I started to volunteer and learnt how to be part of and run projects in undergrad. I was part of the MIT-African Students Association, MIT-Africa Internet Technology Initiative, MIT-Expediting Access to Standard Education, etc. MIT paid for me to be in Ghana to work on MIT-AITI (2004) and D-Lab (2006) projects. I started working on what became Museke as well — lyrics dot ghanathink dot org. I started my first blog too. It was great to see the amount of work university students could do, do more outside of the classroom, and how they could impact.

I heard about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because my main Presec role model got admitted in 2000. Having 3 Odadees at MIT when I got there was great too. The MIT-African Students Association was extremely important to me. My closest friends were in it. It was awesome to act in Chinua Achebe plays with my role model there. I did poetry recitals at our semi-formal events and bigger events as well. Yeah, MIT gave so many opportunities for students to work on interests and their abilities. It is a community and it is as successful, enjoyable and impactful as what its students, staff, etc do! We had to represent for the continent. In football too! The MIghTy Africans participated in various intramural sports — football, tennis, basketball. I scored a freekick from halfway once. Rooney. Even though I was tall, I sucked at basketball because I never played it growing up and while I have speed, I am not very athletic. You could imagine the joy when I drained one from downtown. I watched a couple of Celtics games and watched AC Milan play Chelsea in Boston.

While at MIT, I began loving networking a lot. I started organizing African themed parties at MIT (Partycrew!). I wanted to meet & know almost every Ghanaian student in nearby universities, as well as other Africans. I went to Mount Holyoke’s AC Day for 3 consecutive years. Did I go to look for women to date? 22.6%. African-Carribean Day was seeerrriooous. Though it happened in South Hadley, a small town in Massachusetts, people traveled from Connecticut, Maryland, Atlanta to come to it. It was arguably the best African student event in the US — at an all-female college too. I also went to African student events at Harvard, Tufts, Wellesley, University of Connecticut, etc, as well as other African themed events in Boston, New York, DC, etc. Let me chip this in, right after MIT, I started dating my first girlfriend. She schooled in Connecticut, not in Masschusetts where I was. She was from Swaziland, she is from Eswatini. ;-)

I started learning Swahili instead of Spanish (etc) because the former is an African language. I learnt this from East African MIT friends and others. In fact, the person who taught me most of my early Swahili was a female Rwandan student in a very small university in Rhode Island. Chocolatay! I became very Pan-African, listening to songs from all over Africa and learning their cultures. Since we were not thought much about African history in school in Ghana, I learnt a whole lot more. I was babahazed to learn that in high schools in Tanzania, students studied Chemistry and Physics in Kiswahili. Some of these Bongo students came to top institutions like Wellesley and Harvard, and did as well as those we studied science in German, Korean and Spanish. I knew so much about several African countries and the only one I had been was Ghana. Google has always been a very good friend of mine.

Culture is important. At MIT, when I was taking my first exams, I realised there were no invigilators. As someone who wrote BECE (KNUST-JSS) and SSCE (Presec) with invigilators ensuring no one cheats, that really boggled my mind. Interestingly, no one tried to cheat during exams at MIT. That’s culture, that’s following good behaviour. This is how you drive ethics as well. But also, the students themselves accepted this culture and held it true. If you think this is impossible to do in Ghana, go and research Ashesi University. You might already know how much I adore Patrick Awuah and Ashesi.

One of the best things about MIT is it being in Cambridge, near Boston. I was able to visit several top universities thanks to being there. Harvard was down the road by bus. MIT like several top universities in the US is home to a large number of atheists. I found myself as one of the most religious students there. You know why? Because I became a campus ministry leader. Me? Lol. I was vice-president of the Catholic Students Association at Presec, but that is a level below being an evangelist. My faith and religious attitude was challenged. I believe in God still, I always will. I had several conversations with people there which opened my mind to many worldviews, and I learnt a lot from that. I realized that ethics, good morals, discipline are what drives societies to succeed more and not just being religious. I have become less superstitious. Deeds are paramount, as faith is important.

MIT and Stanford have really shaped me. It showed me so many possibilities and due to that, while I accept the realities of where I might be, I’m always looking at how myself or others can do better in those situations. Surely, they are world class institutions with a lot of funding, great networks, etc…. but these places thought me that in spite of things available to me, I have to go out and grab available opportunities, while leveraging whatever is around for me for more. No matter which place you are in, people compete. So you must do your best. And you should learn to collaborate as well, and work in teams. So much of our grades in these schools depended on work done with others. So you would have to learn to work with people (by force), and realize how you combine your powers determines how successful you all are.

By now, you should realized that MIghTy African comes from 2 things, MIT and Africa. But yeah, I am an African and I want to be as mighty as possible :-)



Ato Ulzen-Appiah

I’m part of @GhanaThink which runs @barcampghana @JuniorCampGhana @volunteeringh, etc & @Museke. Read #mightyafrican blogs & @Abocco’s @ #GhanaConscious.