By Amanda Nelson
It was a Tuesday and the ground was damp from a rain the night before. A little boy and his grandmother awoke early and began a journey from their small village in West Africa.
He was on his way to kindergarten. The boy had started at another school, closer to his village. But it was shut down before he could begin his second week of school – the money just wasn’t there.
And so began the educational journey of Richard Mensah, who grew up as a subsistence farm boy in a small village of about 80 people in the Central Region of Ghana, West Africa.
“Grandmother never stepped a foot in a classroom, but she was the one who took me to kindergarten to write my name. I was almost six years old,” recalls Mensah.
Day to day and year to year, it was never certain how long Mensah could continue to go to school. Ghana parents pay for their wards’ education from kindergarten to the end, he explained.
“Usually, poor farmers like me would not have education beyond elementary school, but I was fortunate to have had two great supportive women — my grandmother and my mother — who were not ready to let me follow the usual trend in my village,” Mensah said. “Without a father in the house — my parents divorced when I was about 8 years old — I only had these women as my source of motivation and encouragement.”
The uncertain path between making it all the way through high school in rural Ghana to obtaining a Ph.D. from a major university would seem unfathomable to most. For Mensah, it will soon be a reality, stemming from a years-long undertaking, marked by starts and stops, financial struggle, unexpected blessings, perseverance, and hard work. He is poised to obtain his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky College of Education by spring of 2016.
Mensah first visited the U.S. while still in high school, after winning a school-wide competition. He traveled with his principal in spring 1993, and was hosted for six weeks by the Lindblom Technical High School in Chicago, IL.
“It was incredible, especially a poor village boy like me being chosen before the rich and popular students in my high school,” he said. “It was an honor to my family, and my mother talks about it even today. The visit exposed me to the U.S. education system for the first time. I saw it to be far better, hence my desire to return for more.”
The value placed on education in Mensah’s childhood home has translated into a passion for his studies and a desire to share education with others. Mensah started teaching as soon as he finished high school.
“I began to take care of myself financially and managed to remit my mother and grandmother some money at the end of the month to help care for my two siblings and a couple of cousins who lived with us in the house,” he said.
While supporting himself as a teacher, Mensah got his bachelor’s degree in business education at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. After college, he yearned to return to the United States to further his education. Between years of working and studying, he eventually obtained a master’s degree in public health at the University of Kentucky.
But Mensah wasn’t quite finished. Once again, his heart was being called back to the place where his journey began – education. He worked for a year and went back to school.
“I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in education without knowing what I wanted to teach. I just wanted to teach,” Mensah said. He started out with a focus on higher education in the college’s Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation. Two semesters into the program, Dr. Kelly Bradley called him to her office. “She wondered why I had indicated higher education as my major but almost all the courses I had taken were quantitative-based. The realization from that meeting was that I was more quantitative-oriented than I thought.”
Mensah is now a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Education Sciences program with a focus on measurement and evaluation. Graduates of the program are prepared to meet the growing national need for educators who are well trained in methodological issues in education research. Graduates typically have careers in research universities, educational research labs and corporations, and research groups within education agencies.
Mensah hopes for a career as a faculty member or as a researcher in the field of test/survey development. Ultimately, he wants to make a difference in the lives of others, just as others have done for him.
“The two mentors I have had during my educational journey made the difference – Mr. Kobina Mintah (my 8th grade teacher) and Dr. Kelly Bradley (my current mentor and advisor). I have been a teaching assistant for two academic years under Dr. Bradley’s tutelage and direction. It has been a blessing.”
Bradley said Mensah is the gold star example of hard work and ambition equating to desired outcomes and success.
“EPE is full of degree opportunities that allow students to obtain the skill set and educational training that they need and want, to graduate with
the qualifications and credentials that they desire,”
“Richard has and continues to take advantage of opportunities and the full spectrum of faculty training and interests. His research skills in quantitative methods and measurement offer him the ability to make a huge contribution in either industry or academia. There really is no limit to his career potential.”
Mensah’s wife and son joined him in the U.S. in August 2012, shortly before he began the Ph.D. program. They have since added two more children to their family.
“We have been enjoying the program together through thick and thin, through times when daily bread was sometimes not easy to get,” Mensah said. “I look at them now and I tell myself, ‘It’s been worth it.’” «