How students think about applying what they learn at St. Thomas can represent a huge range, from an abstract idea to a fully formed vision. It is rare, though, to find a vision as well-defined and ambitious as Father Sylvester Frimpong worked toward as he earned his master’s degree in educational leadership from 2009 to 2011 at St. Thomas’ then-College of Education, Leadership & Counseling.
That vision is nothing less than transforming education in Frimpong’s native Ghana. In the years since graduating he has led incredible strides toward that vision becoming reality: In 2012 Frimpong opened Our Lady of Grace Senior High School in Mamponteng, Ghana, where nearly 800 students make up a dynamic Catholic school that is a shining example of change in its pedagogy, service mission and passion for justice.
“I have always been a passionate advocate of holistic education, believing that good education is the greatest possible solution to the teeming problems of my country, Ghana, and the continent of Africa as a whole,” Frimpong said.
Ghana to Minnesota, and back again
Immediately after being ordained in 2004, Frimpong went to work as a chaplain and tutor in the public school system. As he observed the state system’s rote learning and its ineffectiveness, he grew hungry for figuring out how to enact change.
“I felt that that system does not bring out the best in students as they are not helped to acquire the necessary critical thinking skills, to unleash their creative potential and to develop the relevant skills for the solution of daily problems of life,” he said. “I wanted to study systems of education different from ours and to see how we could appropriate some of those systems into our own, so that our students could be assisted to become the best versions of themselves.”
Thanks to a long-standing partnership between his parish – St. Joseph in Mamponteng, in the Ashanti region of Ghana – and Our Lady of Grace in Edina, Minn., Frimpong had the opportunity to study educational leadership in the United States. St. Thomas proved to be a perfect fit.
“The mission statement of St. Thomas resonates very well with me as a person, as it summarizes my perception of education – helping students to think critically, act wisely and ethically for the advancement of the common good,” he said. “I cannot think about any better mission of any education system.”
As Frimpong dove into his studies, one of his first faculty relationships was with Artika Tyner, now St. Thomas’ associate vice president for diversity and inclusion. Frimpong’s case studies in class built the foundation of what he hoped to accomplish in Ghana, which became more and more tied to the values he was immersing himself in at St. Thomas.
“It was an extension of the St. Thomas mission. He took an opportunity to breathe life into it in a strategic way,” Tyner said. “He did take the initiative, had the intellectual curiosity, all the things we say about the mission, he connected the dots to make a vision with an impact in his country. That’s not just making your faith come alive, but your personal mission come alive.”
Frimpong’s personal mission and the school’s continued to take shape, eventually culminating in a mission statement any Tommie would appreciate: “Offer a comprehensive 21st century education that trains not only the mind, but also the hand and the heart, and to make our graduates integral persons who are able to think critically, act wisely and ethically, to solve problems of daily life efficiently.”
“The St. Thomas experience has been a great influence on my life as an educator. It gave me absolute conviction about my personal understanding of education, how it is to be efficiently done and the great prospects it offers individuals and society at large,” Frimpong said. “The St. Thomas experience gave me the appropriate language and expressions; it helped me to appreciate the crucial role good instructional leaders and teachers play in shining lights, under which seedlings can grow into big trees, and even forests.”
Tyner and Frimpong have remained connected since his graduation and return to Ghana, helping tie together a continually growing thread between St. Thomas and the West African nation. Office for Mission program director Monica Habia’s research – funded by a grant the Luann Dummer Center for Women – brought her and Tyner to Ghana in January, where for several weeks they met with St. Thomas alumni and built relationships – including with Ashesi University in southern Ghana; in July Tyner and Father John-Pierre Bongila, Ed.D., taught an educational leadership study abroad course in Ghana,
“Ghana is a perfect site [for a relationship] in terms of a fast-growing economy, a strong history of community engagement, democracy, all those components. It would be ideal as a place to develop,” Tyner said, pointing to faculty exchange and service learning as other opportunities that could arise.
In Frimpong, St. Thomas has a partner in a self-described “true Tommie,” who said he will continue to build the relationships of St. Thomas and Ashesi to empower himself, everyone at Our Lady of Grace High School and – eventually – throughout Ghana.
“We can become change leaders in our part of the world,” Frimpong said. “I am all out for promoting the common good.”
“He’s a great role model for the rest of our students,” Tyner said. “To have the dream and focus … to make this vision a reality, that’s the epitome of a St. Thomas education.”