Updated: November 24, 2009 at 12:00 am
In December, Chris Akumfi of Ghana expects to graduate from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with a chemistry degree, and he hopes to go on to get a master’s degree in business management.
Given what Akumfi has endured to reach this point, perhaps he should be awarded a doctorate in perseverance.
Akumfi, 23, likely would have been back in Ghana long ago at his old job washing dishes if not for the help of a key ally – chemistry professor Chet Dymek, who guided Akumfi as he struggled with his major and with U.S. immigration officials bent on deporting him.
Theirs is a story of a unique bond that started when Akumfi was Dymek’s student, grew as they joined a mentoring relationship in the university’s Multi-Cultural Diversity Program, and developed into something much stronger and deeper as they battled an unforgiving federal bureaucracy.
“Dr. Dymek had faith in me and invited me into his house and into his family,” Akumfi said. “I see him as a father, all that he has been doing for me. He is like a gift from God, sent from above.”
Dymek, who retired from the Air Force in 1992 after a career that included teaching chemistry at the Air Force Academy, returns the compliments. Though he’s careful to maintain the boundaries demanded of professors and students, Dymek admits has a special admiration for Akumfi.
“He’s almost like a son,” said Dymek. “He’s worked so hard. He’s developing a lot of character. He’s got a noble vision.”
To understand their relationship, you must understand all that Akumfi went through before he ever arrived in the U.S.
At 13, Akumfi’s mother died from a prescription drug interaction. Soon after, his father disappeared, leaving him and his younger brother and sister to be raised by extended family in Ghana.
Akumfi quit high school and worked washing dishes to support his siblings.
“Life became difficult,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to stay in school.”
In 2003, at age 16, Akumfi came to the U.S. to join an aunt in Aurora who adopted him, even though it meant leaving his brother and sister behind in Ghana.
His problems with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service began about a year later, after he was chosen by the Daniels Fund for one of its prestigious college scholarships. Akumfi needed to provide proof of his residency status to qualify. But the CIS questioned the legality of the adoption by his aunt, a naturalized U.S. citizen, and denied his petition for alien residency.
It was a devastating. It cost him a free college education because he couldn’t accept the Daniels scholarship. And it put him on a path toward deportation.
His family decided to fight, launching a lengthy and expensive appeal. It dragged on nearly five years, clouding his college years with the constant threat of deportation. If that happened, all his work toward a UCCS degree would be lost.
But it didn’t stop him. He pushed ahead, determined to get his chemistry degree and ultimately become a pharmacist in Ghana, so he could prevent the kind of death his mother suffered.
There was just one problem with Akumfi’s plan, Dymek said. He found advanced chemistry to be a huge challenge.
“He really struggled,” Dymek said. “He recognized he shouldn’t be in chemistry.”
Switching majors wasn’t an option, however, because of the pressure from CIS. Akumfi desperately wanted to earn a college degree as quickly as possible in the event he was deported, so he didn’t want to risk losing a year or two to transfer into another field of study. With Dymek’s help, he persevered.
If that wasn’t enough pressure, Akumfi launched a computer company in Ghana in 2008. He needed money for his legal fight and education, and he saw a need for computers in Ghana. He started buying old computers and shipping them to his brother and sister for them to sell.
The venture went so well, he created the American Electronics & Computer Institute, a Colorado company that offers a range of computers and electronics, training and repair services and Internet access in Ghana. He also set up computer labs in Ghana with a goal to teach 3,000 children in seven elementary schools about computers. So far about 50 have enrolled in his program.
“He shouldn’t be in chemistry,” Dymek said. “He should be studying business. He’s a natural entrepreneur.”
Dymek believes so strongly in Akumfi, he invested in his business and is helping arrange for him to buy surplus computers from UCCS to take back to Ghana.
In October, an immigration appellate court ruled Akumfi’s adoption was legal, clearing the way for him to possibly qualify for residency and further education.
“It‘s a huge relief,” Akumfi said. “They‘ve recognized that I am a child of an American citizen.”
Now, he’s got his eye on a master’s degree. Dymek has little doubt he can achieve anything he decides to pursue.
“The stress he has endured, it’s incredible,” Dymek said. “He lost his mother and his family. Moved to a new country. Finds himself up against the bureaucracy. He needed money and ended up creating an institute that is impacting the lives of thousands of Ghana children.
“I’ve met very few people who go through what he has without whining. But he never whines. He just keeps going. He’s an inspiration to me.”