Central Oregon Community College’s new vice president for instruction, Charles Abasa-Nyarko, was fascinated with American politics while growing up in Ghana.
After President Richard Nixon won re-election, Abasa-Nyarko found someone to type and mail a letter congratulating Nixon on his win over George McGovern. When asked if he would take that letter back, knowing what history held for Nixon’s second term, Abasa-Nyarko, 59, laughed and said, “No.”
In Ghana, as in many other places abroad, America holds a prominent position in the popular imagination.
“America built many of the schools,” Abasa-Nyarko said. “I watched Westerns growing up. In high school, I took a class where we watched CBS and Walter Cronkite. Everything American is everywhere. I was even taught by Peace Corps members.”
Despite his interest and exposure, after graduating from college in Ghana with a bachelor’s in political science, Abasa-Nyarko had his sights set on our neighbor to the north.
“I wanted to go to Canada, originally. Like Ghana and other former British territories, it is in the Commonwealth. But then I met some missionaries who said I should go to BYU (Brigham Young University) in America.”
Nations in the Commonwealth share similar education practices. But after working as a high school teacher in Ghana, Abasa-Nyarko took the advice of his friends and left Africa’s Atlantic coast to earn a master’s in political science at BYU.
“In Utah I was asked by a professor why I was in his political science class, and I told him because I wanted to be a politician,” Abasa-Nyarko said. “This professor said, ‘No, no, you are in the wrong place if you want to do that.’ Well I did want to solve problems in Africa, so I decided I needed to go further and further and study more.”
Going further took Abasa-Nyarko to the University of South Carolina, where he earned a doctorate in international studies. His dissertation attempted to explain why civilian governments are better able to serve their nations than military regimes, focusing on Ghana’s government in the second half of the 20th century.
Abasa-Nyarko went on to teach in American higher education. Eventually he made the transition to being an administrator after he started to help a department chair and “realized I could do this better.”
His administration work has taken him to Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts and Gloucester County College in New Jersey. Most recently, he worked as executive planner and project manager at Baltimore City Community College.
But in 2008, Abasa-Nyarko had the chance to help bring what he had learned in the U.S. back to Ghana by leading the development of a community college system back home. The educational system in Ghana is more hierarchical than in the U.S. Not everyone has the chance to attend the equivalent of high school, and even fewer have the opportunity to attend a university.
“Community college gives you an opportunity,” Abasa-Nyarko said. “Where I come from, if you flunk once, you are out. But this system gives you another chance.”
After an election, the nation’s new leaders decided that a community college system was not a priority, and the plan fell apart.
“The government is everything in Ghana, they either fund your project or they don’t.”
When asked if he would want to return to complete the project under a more favorable political climate, Abasa-Nyarko said, “No, no, I’m done, and I’m an American citizen now, I’ve been here for so long.”
Abasa-Nyarko said he was attracted to COCC by its reputation and location. Kathy Smith, chair of the COCC faculty forum and member of the search committee that recruited Abasa-Nyarko, says they were attracted to Abasa-Nyarko by his commitment to the community college model and his belief in faculty collaboration.
“He has a sense of shared governance in a way the faculty also believes in,” Smith said. “He believes the faculty should have a large influence in the instructional decision making.”
Three finalists were brought to campus, where they met with faculty and staff and gave a presentation. In the end, Smith says, “It was clear Charles was our man.”
Smith also highlighted Abasa-Nyarko’s work assessing a college’s progress toward meeting institutional goals. While the goal of ensuring student success and promoting collaboration may seem like obvious objectives for a college, figuring out how to measure such objectives is less obvious. Smith said COCC’s new vice president is up for this challenge. When asked about his first steps, Abasa-Nyarko said it’s too early to say.
“No matter how good you are, there are some places you need to work on,” he said. “So faculty are yet to come to campus. When they get here, I will talk to them and learn about the challenges we face. This is the quiet time for me. I have projects in mind for measuring outcomes, but it will be based in teamwork, so I can’t say much now. My job is to guide the faculty and offer assistance and make sure it is done on time.”
Abasa-Nyarko was clear that he hopes to begin teaching a class once a year, though he said he would defer to the department chair on the topic.
“Even though I’m the VP, I’d have to go to the chair,” he said. “But I want to teach American government. I love when the elections come. I used to stay up all night on election night.”
Discussing what he likes about his new home, Abasa-Nyarko noted the good food and welcoming nature of people both on and off campus, as well as the beauty of Central Oregon.
However, he laughed off a question about any intentions to take up hiking or skiing. “I’m too old now,” he said.