The Adventures Abroad series highlights young professionals boldly taking up global roles and gaining international work experience.
It’s mid-afternoon on a Friday in Accra. Amma & I have just connected on Skype. The video stream is suprisingly clear. She gives me a virtual tour of her apartment – living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom. The apartment appears relatively spacious and airy from what I can glean. We spend a few minutes catching up – chatting about rent, new news and our weekend plans. Our dialogue feels so familiar, so routine – childhood friends catching up. For a moment I forget we’re 5,000 miles apart.
The Basics: Amma Aboagye
- Hometown: Capitol Heights, Maryland, USA
- Relocated: Baton Rouge > London > Accra
- Current City: Accra, Ghana
- Profession: Policy & Implementation Coordinator, Innovations for Poverty Action
Discovering the Pathway to Policy
If there is one thing you should know about Amma, it’s that she is passionate – enthusiastically, opinionatedly and unwaveringly passionate about educational policy, economic development, politics, race and culture. I’ve known this about Amma since our high school days debating topics I can barely recall in the back of the cafeteria. While these were formidable years, her journey to pursuing a global career in policy began with what she described as a missed opportunity during her undergraduate studies in the Industrial & Labor Relations program at Cornell University – opting not to study abroad.
I didn’t study abroad during undergrad. I realized that my peers were exposed to many opportunities from seeing the world that way.
A seed was planted in her heart and mind that would manifest a few short years later, but before realizing her desire to work abroad, Amma began to realize the important role that education played in shaping reformative policy. After college Amma joined Teach for America, a competitive, two-year program that enlists and places recent graduates as teachers in low-income schools and communities. She packed her bags, moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and began teaching 6th grade mathematics at a middle school that would later shut down its doors.
I learned a lot about mindset. No matter what good you want for someone – they have to want it for themselves. You don’t know what you want until you’re exposed to it.
She describes this time in Baton Rouge as the first time in her life that she had no choice but to recognize class and its impact on learning. It was also the first time she was faced with the reality that upbringing, life circumstances and cross-cultural exposure played a very significant role in shaping the future ambitions of her students. It was important to Amma to change this narrative and help her students realize their potential for success, so she started a club called The Talented Tenth, exposing her students to career opportunities through organized mentorship, community service, personal development sessions and college tours. Her desire was for her students to leave the Talented Tenth program inspired and empowered as young leaders with a holistic world view and the confidence to be able to achieve their dreams.
The Journey Begins.. London & Accra
Realizing that there were policies beyond the classroom that needed to be addressed before educational reform could occur led Amma to Columbia University where she pursued her Masters of Public Administration in Urban Social Policy with a Specialization in Africa. Enrolling back in school gave Amma a second opportunity to study abroad – this time she wasn’t passing it up! She completed the first year of her program in New York City, packed her bags, then headed to London to complete her second and final year at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Amma recounted her time at LSE with classmates from all over the world as the first time she truly had to see herself as American.
My class was very diverse. There were people from all over Europe. We’d have conversations about policy & entertainment. It was the first time I was in a situation that was so different – I was negotiating my views.
The London experience was one of growth for Amma – intellectually and personally. As a first generation African-American from Ghana, she became more self-aware and confident in her identity. She began to recognize the nuances of the Black experience across the globe – bonds that tied and disparities that divided. And as her intellectual curiosities around race, identity, education and policy continued to grow, so did her desire to return to Africa post-graduation.
As a current Policy and Implementation Coordinator in Accra, Ghana, Amma is now focused on education and policy reform from the top down. Her experiences in the classroom, as both a teacher and student, gave her everyday perspective that has helped her to ensure that the policies her organization addresses are truly relevant and properly messaged to the educators and institutions they impact. What’s the best way to train teachers? What are the inefficiencies and gaps in the classroom experience and how can they be addressed? Who are the key stakeholders and advocacy organizations that need to be engaged to push a policy forward?
The Unexpected Surprises
I asked Amma what elements of her move abroad surprised her the most. There were many. She shared that within her first three months of moving to Accra, she lost her job and had to pivot quickly. The company was a start up and fell apart, but there were still connections and relationships she’d established that would help transition her to her current role.
No matter how great your plans are, things always change; It’s important to be resilient.
She also pointed to the level of unanticipated adaptation necessary to get acclimated to everyday living in both the United Kingdom and Ghana. With the UK, for example, one might assume that language wouldn’t be a barrier (with the exception of adjusting to new and different accents); however, what Amma found was that there were so many different social cues to learn and faux pas to avoid.
You have to be perceptive – to know and see and pay attention to the idiosyncrasies around you – then be open to adjusting your behavior accordingly.
What might be socially acceptable conversationally in one setting, was completely unacceptable in another. In Ghana, Amma found that nonchalance or having a Laissez-faire attitude could easily lend itself to being wrongly perceived and isolated as an American.
Amma Says: Thinking About Moving Abroad?
The most powerful tool to have in your corner if you’re targeting global experiences is language. At the end of the day if you can’t communicate – you can’t work. For many Americans, language isn’t a huge focus, and when it is, it’s studied from the perspective of domestically relevant questions. Amma’s advice? If you want to hop the ocean and move abroad – you’re going to want to focus more on the language piece.
Get a Master’s degree, but focus on the specific skill you’d like to get out of that experience. Amma emphasized the importance of graduate education in the policy/reform space, but advises that before you go to graduate school, you research international job descriptions, identify the skill sets needed for those roles, then pursue higher learning opportunities that will help you become a more marketable candidate for those jobs and companies.
Take the risk as early as possible. If you think you might be interested in global opportunities it’s never too early to start gaining international experience. Pursue internships and study abroad opportunities as early as high school. There are a ton of scholarships available. It just adds so much value to your resume and life.
If you know Amma, you know she wasted no time in finding and creating extracurricular activities to keep her globe-trotting days busy! Here’s what she’s up to these days:
- MPwr Radio Co-Host: Amma co-hosts the weekly, Accra-based MPwr radio show for young professionals. MPwr spotlights youth accomplishments, engages listeners in meaningful dialogue and challenging debate; and offers resources available to Ghanaian youth for self empowerment. Visit mpwrshow.com to learn more.
- Afropolettiques: For discussions on race, politics, cooperative economics and her “Nostalgia for the Future” follow Amma’s commentary at Afropolettiques.
- Rambling Roommates: Amma blogs about relationships and her returnee experience to Ghana with her roommate on their joint-blog, Rambling Roommates.