Hi Adwoa – Thank you so much for joining me with Madam Ambition. If you want to start by telling me a little about yourself and where you’re from?

Sure, I would love to. I was born in the Greater Toronto Area but my parents immigrated to Canada from Ghana in the early 80s so I’m Canadian but of Ghanaian heritage. I’ve probably lived in the US the longest of all the places I’ve lived. My family moved to the US when I started high school and for one year when I was in the fourth grade. I have lived in North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, basically always south of the Mason Dixon line.

Tell me a little bit about your parents and their jobs and lives?

Sure, my mom was a French teacher but she didn’t teach for very long. She finished university in Ghana and taught in school as part of her national service. Around that time she and my dad were getting ready to get married. My father is a physician, and they got married around the time he was going to start his residency in England.

My dad is a psychiatrist who’s always kind of been associated with an academic institution and my mom had visions of being a career woman but ended up choosing to stay home to raise her kids. In my adult years, she went back to university to do a second Bachelor’s in piano pedagogy and she later opened her own private piano studio and also became a piano teacher. Right now, she is not actively teaching anything, she’s just living her life and my dad is approaching his retirement from working at the University of Alabama. 

 

Do you have any other siblings? 

I do. I have two younger brothers. My middle brother lives in Brooklyn and works for the NBA as some kind of tech person. I always have to check LinkedIn to remind myself of what he does. He used to work for Microsoft. He’s always done these data-related jobs. My youngest brother, Kofi lives in Alabama and he works as a physician’s assistant in the health care system right now.

 

What are some of your early memories of your childhood? And formative experiences?

I think travel has always kind of been a part of my childhood in life because my parents immigrated and they were both firstborn. Everyone else in their family was not in Canada so we’d go back to Ghana and visit my grandparents, aunts, and uncles often. Ghana was always a part of my growing up. 

My father is a physician but he had a lot of interests. He really liked music. He started the first African radio station in Canada. Even though I grew up in Canada, I think I had solid ties to my cultural identity. I grew up speaking Fante and really started speaking English when I had to go to daycare and school.

I went to a Montessori school and from the first grade up until the eighth grade I went to a French immersion school, so all of my education was in French. We went to the States for a year in the fourth grade and I think that year was a bit formative for me in the sense that it was the first time I went to public school and it was the first time I went to school with other black kids in my class. However, very quickly it became a dreadful experience because I didn’t fit the mold of an African American kid. I didn’t live in the same neighborhood. I didn’t speak the same way and for the first time in my life, I was being told that I was trying to act white by trying to do well in school and talking the way I spoke. As an adult, I’ve been able to reflect on that experience and you know I think about how it’s impacted me and stuff.

My father was Catholic, but I felt different about it. I was pretty obedient, I never snuck out and was very oblivious to a lot of the challenges that my peers were facing in terms of like, teen pregnancies or struggling with eating disorders. I had a small group of really close friends who typically ended up being kids who were immigrants themselves. My closest friend was an Indian from Kenya, another girl who was Nigerian, and then a white girl from Missouri, who had basically moved to North Carolina the same year I did.

 

Did you have any idea about your future when you were in high school or even when you were younger? 

I had no idea what I wanted to do. To be frank, I just went to school and did well because I was told I had to. My junior year, everyone was applying to college so that’s what I did too. There was never really a question as to whether I would go, both my parents are university educated and it wasn’t said to me you better go to university or else but it was just kind of the only next step. So I just applied to a bunch of schools.

 

Where did you apply?

I applied to a lot of schools. I applied to UNC-Chapel Hill, which funny enough, was actually one of my last choices because it was the first choice for many people in my neighborhood. I applied to a lot of other UNC schools like Asheville and Wilmington. I also applied to Georgetown University and some schools in Canada, like the University of Toronto McGill in Montreal and Carleton University in Ottawa. Ultimately, McGill University was my dream school but if I had gone there I knew it would have taken me longer to graduate because I wanted to study abroad. 

I ended up getting into all the schools I applied to but I was super anxious and worried that I wouldn’t get into any schools. As a kid, I just always felt like learning was complex and I had to work so hard to get decent grades. In my household, a C was failing and I always assumed others were doing better than I was. It wasn’t until I graduated from high school that I realized I actually had done quite well. 

I also think I wasn’t even aware of the privilege I had growing up with educated parents who were black. I didn’t think about things like, “how was my college going to be paid for.” I filled out the FAFSA paperwork because that’s what everyone had to do and I remember coming home, and my dad told me, “you’re not going to qualify for FAFSA.” 

When I was accepted to Georgetown University, I remember one of my only black teachers in AP English teacher “ The valedictorian was waitlisted. You might think I don’t like you, but I pushed you hard because you have to do better because you’re black, you know?” I thought to myself “what is this thing about having to do better?” 

Eventually, I ended up going to my safety school and actually falling in love with it. I double-majored in French and international studies and graduated in three and a half years.

 

What year did you graduate college?

I graduated in December of 2004. I applied to serve at Maxwell International School and served as a French teaching assistant. After doing that, I was asked to volunteer with a junior youth empowerment program at Townsend school in the Czech Republic. After having these experiences I still didn’t have a plan. My family had left North Carolina and moved to Alabama, and I just went to their house without a plan. My father was like, “well you can’t just be here, you have to do something.” At the time, he was working at the University of Alabama, and he recommended I consider teaching, given my experiences and coming from a family of teachers. I kind of turned my nose up at it initially but I actually did enjoy working with kids so I applied to the University of Alabama and did some prerequisites for the required exams and I started doing a master’s in Education. 

I was fortunate once again in the sense that because I was a dependent and my parents lived there, I was considered in-state. My father worked there so I qualified to get half off of in-state tuition and by my second semester, I was offered an assistantship, so my education was covered entirely.I graduated from my master’s program with absolutely no debt.

And it came together for me but it’s not like by magic I know there was privilege there. When I graduated, I got a teaching job in Fairfax, Virginia, in the D.C. metro area. I taught French to high schoolers. I was asked to be like a curriculum team lead. As a regional coordinator, I taught for four years in that school before I was asked to serve the Baha’i Training Institute in that region. 

 

What was service like?

I feel like that service opened my eyes to the realities of what probably most Americans’ lives are like. I spent time in trailer park communities with holes in the ceiling stuffed with cardboard to keep the water from leaking in. I spent time with parents who were suffering from significant mental health issues, poverty, and substance abuse. I had really been sheltered from a lot of this stuff, so while I was in the midst of this work, I realized that as much as I felt I loved teaching, I had actually missed a lot of things that my students had been struggling with and experiencing themselves. 

I thought I could be a better teacher if I was more compassionate but then I was introduced to the field of social work and realized that in some ways some of the things I engaged within my service were in the realm of social work. So I prepared myself to get a second master’s in Social Work. This was also the time I met my husband.

 

Where did you apply to do social work?

I went to Purdue University at Indianapolis and had to take a statistics prerequisite class, which was the most painful thing for me. Numbers are not my thing and I took this statistics class while I was pregnant. My plan was to start my master’s within the first year of our marriage but I ended up deferring until the following year. I finished my master’s in the spring of 2019 when I had just gotten pregnant with my second born. I graduated with my master’s in social work, and then my second daughter was born in November 2019, so my career took another hold.

 

So when did you really get a taste of the kind of work you wanted to do?

When I was doing my internship for social work, I really got a taste of the kind of work that I wanted to do. I interned at an organization that helped veterans who were at risk of homelessness and it was fulfilling work. In my next year-long internship I worked with adolescents in the pediatric and adolescent outpatient psychiatric unit providing mental health counseling to adolescents who suffered from substance use disorders and other mental health conditions or illnesses. After learning about the junior youth empowerment program, having taught high school I really liked connecting with middle schoolers, and high schoolers, and was quite passionate about that population.

I am looking forward to working in the counseling, and therapeutic setting once my youngest is older. 

 

If you had thoughts about your career and your life trajectory that you could share with your younger self, what would it be?

You’re not going to be the career woman you thought you would be as soon as you thought You were going to do that. I think the way I envisioned being around was being a teacher so that my schedule would be similar to my kid’s schedule. But I think I would tell my younger self don’t put too much pressure on myself. 

I think my engagement and service have really kind of guided me towards this career in social work, which really sprouted from my foray into education. But now it’s like transitioning into psychoeducational, and I have a father who’s a psychiatrist. I think it’s funny because I went and became a French teacher like my mother, and then I entered mental health like my father. And I think I told my younger self like, don’t be scared if you see your parents in yourself. You got them doing it differently, you know?