Determined to Pay It Forward

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Millicent Adjei believes in paying it forward. She is using her experiences as a first-generation, low-income student and as a mature international student to inform her work as director of the Office of Diversity and International Programs at Ashesi University in Ghana.

“Many of the things I do is because I have walked in [the students’] shoes before,” Adjei said. “I didn’t get that much advising or guidance because I was the first to go [to university] in my family. I couldn’t go ask my mom, ‘OK, which courses should I read at the university?’”

Adjei completed a business administration degree, but it was not the right fit. She stumbled on a role with ISEP, a study abroad provider, where she ended up finding her passion.

“It opened me up to this whole field of international education, which I didn’t even know existed,” Adjei said.

After eight years managing a student exchange program, she decided to apply to the Ford Foundation International Fellows Program to help her earn an advanced degree. She chose the University of Minnesota for its comparative and international development education master’s program in the College of Education and Human Development.

“I saw faculty doing work in Africa in areas that I was really interested in,” Adjei said. “I felt I would be able to get mentorship, but also collaborate with faculty who understand the continent, which I was very sure I was going to go back to work for.”

As part of her master’s program, Adjei conducted research at Ashesi University, examining how it was internationalizing as an African liberal arts university. She also compared how internationalization was happening there with how it was happening in the West.

She presented her work to Ashesi, recommending the university bring together many of its programs and initiatives under one office.

Around the same time, Ashesi received funding from the MasterCard Foundation to recruit more low socio-economic students from across Africa. With a growing international student population, and a growing number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Ashesi was even more in need of not only Adjei’s recommendations, but Adjei herself. She was hired as the founding associate director of the new Office of Diversity and International Programs in 2012.

“They needed a system in place that is not just going to recruit but also support the students to succeed,” Adjei said. “Literally everything that I had recommended in my thesis I got the opportunity to implement.”

Ashesi has about 1,500 students, with international students from 34 countries. About half the student body receives financial aid.

“Ashesi is the place where you get the president of Ghana’s child sitting in the same classroom with the market woman’s child,” Adjei said. “Irrespective of where you are coming from, whether a low socioeconomic background, from different nationalities, from different abilities, we ensure that once we give you access, we prepare ourselves both in and out of the classroom to give you everything you need to succeed.”

Working with such a diverse population made Adjei question how higher education institutions can provide policies and systems that take the backgrounds of their students into consideration. She returned to the University of Minnesota in 2015 to pursue her Ph.D., also in comparative and international development education.

Drawing on her own experience

Adjei understands many of the challenges her own international students are facing—in particular missing family. Her husband and two daughters remained at home in Ghana both times she came to Minnesota. When she left for her master’s, her daughters were just 3 and 6 years old.

“We come from a culture where…girls are not necessarily pushed in terms of education, in terms of better futures that they can have,” Adjei said. “Our philosophy [as parents] has always been how do we go beyond telling them to actually show them. To see their mom pushing, to see their dad supporting their mom to pursue her dream, for us this is a huge example we’re giving them to also thrive, to also pursue, to also push in terms of how they can make a difference.”

But setting this example wasn’t easy. Adjei remembers one particularly difficult moment, when her oldest had an asthma attack in the middle of the night. Her husband had to run out for medicine, so he put on Skype and she watched the children from Minnesota to make sure they were safe.

“Being away from my kids was the toughest thing to do,” Adjei said. “I remember when I sat on that plane from Amsterdam, I cried from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. The lady sitting by me kept asking, ‘Are you okay? Are you sick? What’s wrong?’ And the more she asked, the more I cried.”

Her older daughter is now an international student herself, and she is going through many of the same challenges Adjei faced and that the international students she works with face now.

She gives her the same advice she gives her students: Be engaged. Getting involved will help you build a community.

“Especially for a university like the U, it’s so huge that you actually have to invest in cultivating that community for yourself based on your interests,” Adjei said.

Adjei chose to sing in her church choir and intern with International Student and Scholar Services.

“I also cultivated lifelong friends who have become family today,” she said.

Her other advice is to not take yourself too seriously.

“Sometimes in the classroom, for instance, I see a lot of students who struggle to even speak because of their accent, who may sit in the classroom and not ask any questions because they feel they don’t speak that good level of English,” Adjei said.

And don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

“Most of the time the fear of making mistakes prevents us from seeking that new friendship, from talking to the person who is sitting by you in class,” she said. “Take that first step. Don’t wait to receive it.”

Giving back in Ghana

Adjei always knew she wanted to return to Ghana.

“Someone invested in me to go back to give back,” she said. “If I stayed in the U.S., I think I wouldn’t be fully utilized in the ways that I’m being utilized in Ghana.”

One of her ambitions is to contribute to the professionalization of the practice of student affairs in higher education institutions in Ghana, so those working in areas like student services and international programming have the expertise they need to help students succeed.

“I find myself to be very privileged to be exposed in the practice and also to have the professional training,” she said. “Over the past years, I’ve really been trying and pushing with a group of other people in the field to see how we can professionalize the practice because there's a huge gap.”

Adjei said she is grateful to the University of Minnesota for all the opportunities that prepared her for the work she does today, and to Ashesi for actually giving her the opportunity to utilize her skills and passion.

“I have been privileged to get this high-quality education,” Adjei said. “That really challenges me to do more and also pay it forward. I feel a responsibility to help shape the next generation of young people who are going to take on leadership.”

Adjei received the 2024 Distinguished International Alumni Award from the College of Education and Human Development for her outstanding achievements to educational progress in Ghana.