It was two years before sophomore student Sylvester Amponsah could attend Case Western Reserve University: Two years of being unable to work or to move onto college with the rest of his Northland High School graduating class, 730 days of trying not to give up hope on the scholarship he spent his entire high school career working for…17,520 hours of waiting.
Despite the time, however, the news comes anyway. A month after he applies to the Gates Millennium Scholarship program for the second time, a big envelope arrives for him in the mail. And immediately, he knows.
Sylvester Amponsah is a soft-spoken young man. You wouldn’t be able to tell from talking to him that he once took it upon himself to study philosophy, reading books like “The Dream of Reason,” and “The Ascent of Man” in his spare time. Nevertheless, beneath his mixed accent (somehow clipped and Cleveland-y at the same time) and hesitant demeanor beats the heart of a scholar.
Amponsah heard about the Gates Millennium Scholarship in his freshman year of high school, from a friend of his older brother. The scholarship, which is awarded to a 1,000 students each year, is a full “good through graduation scholarship” that can be renewed after an individual’s undergraduate career to pay for continuing education.
“The scholarship was gonna cover the friend for 10 years,” Amponsah said, “till the friend got her Ph.D. I was like…woah. Ten years, you know, what did she have to do to get it?”
Amponsah spent all of high school trying to get that scholarship. He joined his school’s STEM (science, engineering, technology, math) club, and participated in both FIRST Robotics and Mock trial.
He was able to advance to the finalist stage of the scholarship, but ran into a problem his senior year. Because Amponsah had moved to Ohio from Ghana, his citizenship status was still kind of ambiguous—he was still waiting on the paperwork to be processed.
“I was requested to provide my social security number,” Amponsah said. “But I wasn’t completely legal because my documentation was still in progress. I couldn’t provide it.”
He was forced to withdraw his application, and as graduation came and went, he was still waiting.
Amponsah spent those two years between high school and college not giving up hope. Despite the fact that he wasn’t going to school, he nurtured a thirst for knowledge.
“I joined this group called High Rise Academy, which prepared high school students for the ACT, SAT and AP tests,” Amponsah said. “I couldn’t work or do stuff like that so I spent most of my time during those two years reading as many books as I could.”
Only minority (African American, American Indian, Asian & Pacific Islander and Hispanic American) students are eligible for the Gates Scholarship.
The program’s goal, as their website states, is to “increase the representation of these target groups in the disciplines of computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health and the sciences, where these groups are severely underrepresented.” Reasonable. There are a lot of programs like this. But after talking to Amponsah, even the determinedly clear language of the Gates Millenium Scholarship program’s mission statement seems inadequate to describe the true scope of the situation.
When asked how many other non-white students are in his electrical engineering classes here at CWRU, Amponsah laughs. “Uh…not many,” he says, still chuckling. “Not many, especially in the electrical program specifically. I think I’ve seen about three other black students. I guess, you know, there’s more room for diversity.”
Amponsah doesn’t really think about it that much, he says. After a short and contemplative pause, however, he continues. “Yeah, I sort of expected it, coming to a small private school like this, so, I wasn’t surprised.” He’s not wrong. Though CWRU is on par with its peers in terms of diversity metrics, there is still work to be done in higher education as a whole. In Amponsah’s chosen field of study this past fall, electrical engineering, there were only four African American students out of a class of 79 individuals, a mere five percent.
When asked about the difficulties he faced during the transition from high school to college, however, Amponsah’s answer isn’t that different from the answers of other newly-minted college students.
“I sort of came here with some naivetes,” he said, “I was sort of naïve about my own abilities. At first, I was very challenged, there were some classes that I struggled in, that were quite overwhelming. But as time goes on, I’m catching up a bit, so now is not as overwhelming as it was last year.”
It’s the same story most first-year CWRU students will be telling a year from now. An anticipated change followed by unexpected challenges. The exact same story. And if there was still any doubt about his deserving admittance to CWRU, Amponsah makes it clear with his next statement that regardless of race, he really does belong here. “I enjoy the challenge,” he says. “I mean, it is for this reason that I came here, so…I love it.”