Friday, May 24, 2013

For One Child at Least, the Ordeal is Over

The last many, many months have been spent trying to get our son Sean into college. My husband and I had believed that moving to Ghana more than a decade ago would be to the children’s benefit because the school system here, even at public school level, would be better than the U.S. To some extent we were right and to another, we were not necessarily wrong but not necessarily right, either… let me explain.

Late last year, Sean’s final year at Achimota, we began the process, like so many (parents) before, of applying to colleges. Thankfully, it isn’t like the old days when we were trying to get our Ghanaian nephews into school in the U.S. and had dozens of brochures and paper applications to fill out and individual checks to be mailed. It was mostly done online and thank heavens for that! As protracted, though, as the process is for applying to college, it is even more daunting to do it from anywhere outside of the U.S., especially a third world country like Ghana.

We could not use credit cards to pay for any of the college applications that used the services of the “Common Application” form. Ghana is, of course, a hot bed of credit card fraud and that is perfectly understandable… frustrating, but understandable. Fortunately a few of the schools which did not partake in the Common Application did have a standalone payment system and we were able to take advantage of it. It wound up being a moot point for the most part, however (keep reading).

We could not complete the dreaded FAFSA form (for financial aid) which required a credit card payment at the back end for the submission of financial aid data to the chosen schools. Some schools’ financial aid offices were willing to forego the form and allowed us to simply send them a print screen of the completed form. That was nice of them but essentially moot in the long term (keep reading).

We could not enroll Sean for the SAT for the same reason, and had to rely on the willingness and patience of my dear sweet sister Christine to get the ball (and the checks) rolling. In the end, though, Sean took it twice; he got a not too shabby 1700 on the first one and a much better 1920 on the second.

The real problem we ran into was the obtaining of his high school transcripts. The school would not give them up. We went in late December to request them and paid for seven copies which were prepared and placed on the desk of the school’s headmistress. She didn’t sign them in December. We heard she went on vacation. Okay. She didn’t sign them when she got back. Not sure why. Sly went to the school to discuss it with the headmistress and only a significant amount of self-control (on my husband’s part) kept him from tearing her head off. According to her they don’t release transcripts while a child is in school because it has been their “experience” that the students then develop an “I don’t give a shit” attitude (I’m paraphrasing, of course). She pointed out a young lady waiting to pick up her transcripts from the previous year as an example. But you get the gist. Bottom line is no transcripts till Sean finished his WASSCE… in May! It was even suggested that – being urgent and all –Sean be withdrawn from school even before he began his WASSCE. Yeah, that would work. You see, how well their students performed the WASSCE was paramount to their being able to maintain the school’s “prestigious” and “elite” distinction. Who cares about the outgoing student, in the long run?

It was too late for many of the colleges without the official transcripts and the rejection letters began rolling right in. Only Virginia Tech would accept Sean provisionally based on “unofficial” transcripts but of course there would be no financial aid because they needed the official stuff (I am assuming this, to be honest, but with his grades and SATs and other incidental data he should have been eligible for something). But financial aid from Virginia Tech in the form of scholarships was zilch. Oh well, he’s in their door and that’s the hard part – he will become very good friends with the personnel from Virginia Tech’s Financial Aid office, I am sure.

So now here we are in late May. The grueling WASSCE’s are now finished and Sean has officially completed school. Before he could get the transcript now he needed to get “clearance” from more than a dozen individuals which meant he didn’t owe any money/books/equipment. That was an effed up process from the get-go. For three days Sean was running around the school like a chicken without a head looking for this person and that person and the next. He’d come home exhausted with only one or two names to show for his efforts. Why they couldn’t have arranged for all of these people to be made available for an hour or two each day in the administration block, say, I will never know.

Then the uncompleted form wound up on some “housemaster’s” desk (at his “order” it should be known) and he told Sean on Monday that he wouldn’t be bothered to return to the office to get it and that Sean should come back the next day for it. Did I mention we live about 25 miles from the school? And that Sean rides to school in a taxi which costs about $15 each way? So I decided to accompany him on his endeavor on Tuesday, in the hope of speeding up the process with my obroni presence.

First stop was the guy who had the incomplete form and from whom we’d eventually need the penultimate signature. He was unbelievably, incredibly rude and wanted first to know why Sean felt the need to drag his “mommy” around with him. I said I was there to ensure Sean wasn’t just hanging with friends instead of doing what he was supposed to be doing. Two women in the “master’s” office confirmed he’d been there the day before. I knew that. I just wanted the “master” to know that I knew… ya know? Then he proceeded to ask Sean why he would even be given an incomplete form; when Sean tried to explain about the “order” which came during the final day of WASSCE testing that all day students must include their clearance forms in the batch (from the boarding houses) that was intended for his own review – regardless of the form’s completion – the housemaster cut him off with an I-don’t-want-to-hear-it. Now I am not one to be aggressive (writing is different, okay?) but I raised my voice and made the typical Ghanaian “I-beg” motion and asked that he please listen. He made a face, shrugged his shoulders, turned around, grabbed the form from the top of the stack behind him and handed it to Sean. A grand gesture – like he was bestowing the kid with a knighthood or something. Sheesh.

So we got the form and after three hours of waiting around for a staff meeting to end we finally got the rest of the signatures but we’d have to come back about the transcript yet again since the headmistress was now out.

Finally, Wednesday, we picked up the official-sealed transcripts – already signed by the headmistress (in mid-February!) Had we had these transcripts in hand back in February the outcome might have been different. Sean might be going to a different school or he might have at least gotten a scholarship or two.

All in all Achimota was a learning experience for all of us. Sean did receive a solid education which was good enough to get him into one of the best schools in the U.S. for aerospace engineering. And we know that he’s not afraid of hard work, or the endless hours of studying as a result of teachers who mistakenly believe they are a student’s only teacher and the general life in a dorm.

My husband and I have also learned a thing or two. We’ve learned that for some schools beaurocracy and “appearance” is more important than a child’s future. That perhaps we should have been a bit more “grateful” (I know you know what I mean) for the assistance we sought. That we don’t dare let this happen again with Michael and/or Alex; they will either finish their high school years in the U.S. or we will have established the ground rules with the school’s administration early on for the transcripts. Of course they may or may not go to Achimota. Regardless, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

As it is, though, we are incredibly happy for Sean. Relieved. Glad his ordeal is over. After all he has been through at Achimota – from the early days of boarding and the crap he endured with the senior who couldn’t stand him and made his life miserable, to the health concerns exacerbated by an apathetic house master – I am sure that for him Virginia Tech and dorm life in Blacksburg, VA should be a breeze! He will be majoring in aerospace engineering and we expect big and great things from him! Though we will all miss Sean terribly, we couldn’t be prouder of our son.


  1. Congratulations for getting him this far!

  2. Oh gee ( my mildest response possible). I was getting furious just reading this. I have all kinds of other responses, but that would not do in a public forum such as this.
    I will, however, let my husband read this to validate my decision not to move to Ghana.

  3. Barb, I completely understand where you're coming from. My parents and I went through the same exact thing with the same school. Goodness, I can relate SO much to this story! I absolutely HATED that school and I was only able to tolerate a grand total of 4 months. So when the time came for me to leave for high school back here in the states, the headmistress REFUSED to sign off on any of my transfer forms because according to my mom, the end of semester school clean up was a few weeks away and I had to stay to help clean up the dorms and the rest of the school before I could get my transcripts. Um, sorry WHAT??! They also gave her the same excuse they give you about students not caring about their exams or grades when they make an early exit. I mean come on, what has that got to do with the price of rice in China??? In the end, my mother withdrew me from the school a few weeks early anyway and when I got back to the States, I had to make the difficult decision of staying back a whole school year because I had no transcripts for that semester, and also because of the fact that back then, the Ghanaian school year was out of sync with the American one. I was SO happy when it was all over. Gosh I hated that school, ugh. I get angry whenever I think about my experience at Achimota lol. Anyway, I'm happy that every thing turned out well, for the most part, for Sean.

  4. Hi Barbara, it is so refreshing to find your blog again, The last time I read your blog was back when you had posted some pictures of your nearly completed new house. You were looking for to moving into the new house very soon. I hope by now you are enjoying your not so new house by this time.

    I think you must have stopped blogging for while because I did find updated blogs, Anyway, I really enjoy reading your blogs, I am an American, married to a Ghanaian and is always able to relate and laugh while reading your blogs. Keep up the good works.

  5. Ah yes...the frustrations of Ghana. You have to stick with the BIS, GIS, AIS, Galaxy and Lincoln School scene. Those are more of the "fusion" Ghana/Western schools. I did some time at Lincoln for elementary school and my son did a stint at BIS. It is a good international experience that gives the kids a taste of Ghana and the West at the same time.

  6. Thanks, Buddy. I have also enjoyed your blog and will continue to check in to read your posts.

  7. Sorry about your experience. I never experienced this with my daughter who is now in Brown University. I myself went to Achimota, and received a solid education despite the bullying etc. The whole Common App, FAFSA experience is annoying, but why they choose to penalize a lot of honest applicants because of the fraud of a few. Notice , that most of the countries penalized are black... DESPITE all the challenges, Achimota is still a good school.

  8. VERY true stuff here. I went to Achimota myself, graduated in 2005, now doing a Masters at University of Florida.
    Great high-school learning experience, HORRENDOUS administration system which makes no sense. Makes you wonder; Is it so Difficult just to be reasonable?