Francis Otu has a litany of perfectly valid excuses he could have used for not graduating from college.
He had not been to a classroom since graduating from high school in 1994. He is an immigrant from Ghana and has only been in the United States for about ten years. (He almost returned to Ghana after his first winter in Ohio.)
He is the father of three children, two of whom are still in Ghana.
He has two jobs, so going to school means getting up at 8 a.m. – which can only be described as a nap – attending classes for eight hours, then heading to work until 10 p.m. hours, then another job until the wee hours of the morning. He catches up with his sleep on weekends.
When he first applied to college, he was not accepted.
And yet, Otu didn’t let any of these factors stop him from graduating from college.
The 46-year-old earned his associate degree in nursing from Stark State College on Sunday. On Monday, he entered Kent State University to earn his bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Nursing is his passion, he said.
“I am a sociable person,” Otu said on Friday. “All of my friends come to me when they need help, when they are sick.”
In many ways, the odds were against Otu. But it’s also the exact type of student community college designed to help, and it’s poised to become the example Stark State professors share with incoming students – especially minority students – who wonder what they are doing. they can do that too.
Otu was working in IT in Ghana, but said he was looking for a better opportunity and believed he could find exactly that in the United States. He immigrated in 2009, living first in Nashville, TN, before heading north to Columbus and then to Akron. He’s been here for seven years, working in warehouses and group homes.
But he was not satisfied.
“I was like, ‘No, this is America. America is giving everyone an opportunity. Let me take my opportunity,” said Otu.
He entered Stark State’s Akron campus and immediately found advice from Stephanie Flowers, an academic advisor.
Otu told him he wanted to be a nurse, but he was not immediately accepted. He found another route to earn his nursing associate and then move on to Kent State for his bachelor’s degree, Flowers said.
“He’s always happy, always positive,” said Flowers. “Every time we have our conversations, whatever I advise or recommend him to do, he examines it and he goes. That’s one of the reasons he’s been so successful.”
Having to work in school or having English as a second language can be a barrier, Flowers said, but sometimes it’s what motivates a student or makes them want to say they’ll get there, no matter who. or the price.
“When a student walks in I try not to put labels on it or say I don’t think you’re going to get there – no, how do we make that happen? ” she said. “You don’t have to be here, but now that we’re here, what can we do to make your dream of a college graduate come true? “
Flowers said Otu will be the example she shares with students in the future, especially minority students. According to college data, just 1 in 10 black students who started at Stark State in 2017 earned an associate’s degree in three years.
Low graduation rates among minorities, especially black men, are a prevalent problem in higher education, a problem that has its roots in issues of systemic racism. It often takes a level of persistence – not to mention inadvisable sleep schedules – beyond what anyone can reasonably expect.
But sometimes, says Flowers, it’s enough to know that someone else like them has done it.
“This particular student, Francis, went through all of these things, but he stayed with it and he made it through,” said Flowers. “When we told him no, he was like, ‘Okay, what’s plan B?’ I said no again, “What is Plan C?” He never defected from his goal. “
Otu said Flowers never made him feel like the mountain was too high to climb.
“She said, ‘Hey, don’t worry, you’ll be fine with you, take the lessons slowly, step by step,'” he said.
Two and a half years later, he graduated. It won’t come with much pomp and circumstance, however. The college moved the graduation ceremony to a virtual ceremony this weekend. But Otu said that wouldn’t stop him from celebrating. He planned to take his cap and dress to a photography studio on Saturday to capture the moment, photos he planned to hang on his wall and show them to his children.
He wants his children, including 5-year-old Sofia, a public school student in Akron, to know that they can do whatever they want, at any time in their lives.
“Don’t let anyone put you off,” he told them. “Let God be your helper. That’s all.”
Then he’ll gather a few friends – who, to be honest, haven’t seen him much in the past two years – and celebrate with them.
Otu also celebrates the fact that he recently landed a job in nursing, as an assistant nurse anesthetist for the Cleveland Clinic on its main campus.
“I drive a lot but hey, I love it. I want to be there forever,” he said.
But until he graduates from Kent, he will still burn midnight oil, joking that he can sleep when he dies.
“I say to everyone, ‘Hey, for now you’re alive,’ Otu said. ‘Use the opportunity you have.’
Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at firstname.lastname@example.org, 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.