Kwadwo Sarpong arrived in the United States from Ghana in 2009. He had won a green card to come to the U.S. and was already a first-year university student in Ghana. So, his idea was to transfer to a four-year school in the U.S. straight away.
How this Ghanaian rose from a cleaner in U.S. to the White House and now set to be a neurosurgeon
But things didn’t go as planned for the Ghanaian student. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Sarpong realized that transferring to a four-year institution in the U.S. was virtually impossible. Meanwhile, he needed to take care of himself and his family back home in Ghana, so for his first three years in the U.S., he cleaned hospital floors and worked at Walmart.
While cleaning hospital floors, he met a physician, who gave him a piece of good advice that would help change his life for the better.
“There was a surgeon at the hospital who basically saw me one time and started talking to me. He said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty young to be cleaning, what do you want to do?’ ” Sarpong recalled recently in an interview with Georgetown University Medical Center.
He said he told the surgeon that he wanted to study. The surgeon advised him to start out at the community college level. Sarpong paid attention to the advice and enrolled at Georgia Perimeter College, which is now Perimeter College at Georgia State University.
A professor subsequently urged Sarpong to go for an eight-week summer research program which partnered with Georgia State University. He had the chance to study breast cancer during the program, and explored “the modification of certain drugs through an organic chemistry synthesis,” he said. He soon found his passion for research thanks to the program.
And with his research experience at the community college level, he transferred to Emory University in 2013. As he was doing neuroscience research at Emory, Sarpong stumbled across statistics about women in STEM, particularly in African countries, and how they are largely underrepresented in the sciences. There and then, he knew he wanted to do something about it.
He sought help from his classmates, and together, they conducted a survey in Ghana and found that most women in the sciences had no knowledge about non-medical career opportunities in STEM fields. “Most women had no idea that you could get a PhD in biochemistry or have your own lab,” he said. “They only thought of the medical aspect.”
The survey findings inspired Sarpong to co-found the African Research Academies for Women (ARAW), a nonprofit organization that helps Ghanaian women pursue careers in STEM outside of medicine. Sarpong, who was now CEO of ARAW, helped bring in place the first fully funded eight-week summer research program in Ghana that allows undergraduate students to gain professional development and practical skills in the sciences.
In 2015, Sarpong graduated with a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology from Emory University in 2015 but he decided to postpone medical studies to focus fully on ARAW.
“I wanted this nonprofit to last, so I decided to take off two years to focus on it,” he said.
His commitment to his nonprofit throughout college and after yielded good results. Sarpong was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama for the United States-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014. There, he met with some cabinet members to discuss research, and the invitation helped ARAW gain support and become more popular.
Receiving an email to the summit not too long after starting his organization was surprising to Sarpong. “At first I thought it was a scam so I ignored it, but after contacting an official from Ghana I realized it was not a scam, and actually gained the opportunity again to attend, so I did,” Sarpong told The Christian Journal.
That wasn’t all. Sarpong also spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference, the White House United State of Women Summit, the University of Virginia’s Center for Global Health Research Symposium, and Columbia University’s African Economic Forum. Thanks to the exposure he received, his nonprofit grew.
“We started with five students in the summer research program, then it increased to 10 or 15 per summer. More than 50 students have passed through our program,” he said in 2019. “Right now, most of our students are doing master’s and PhD programs all over the world. It’s amazing.”
But while working with his organisation, Sarpong knew that he needed to focus on himself and continue his education. Still having dreams to study medicine, he came to Georgetown in 2017 through the Georgetown Experimental Medical Studies (GEMS) program. Through the program, he learned the skills he needed to apply to medical schools including Georgetown.
“I chose Georgetown because I’m able to stay involved in research. It provides the best opportunities, in my opinion. I didn’t struggle to find a research mentor,” he said.
Today, Sarpong, who was the only member of his family to move to the United States from Ghana, is grateful for how far he has come and for being able to impact the lives of others.
And after hard work and dedication, he is going to be a neurosurgeon, making him the first physician in his family, he said.
Sarpong is a recipient of the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama. He has also been recognized as part of Emory University’s 40 Under 40 and the recipient of the Young African Committed to Excellence from Face2Face Africa.