Exclusive Interview with Prof. Yaw Yeboah (GSTS Takoradi Alumnus) First Person to earn four degrees from MIT in four years

HYPERCITIGH: Sir, could you please tell us about your family and early education?

PROF YAW YEBOAH:  My parents, both deceased, were illiterate farmers with eight children (four boys and four girls). My mother was from Yonso and my father from Assamang, both in the Sekyere District in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. They farmed in the Ahafo and Sefwi areas most of the year leaving the children to attend school while staying with relatives (grandmothers, aunts and uncles) in Yonso and Assamang. My parents believed in education and did not want to force the children into farming and deprive them of the opportunity education offered. Besides, I believe Kwame Nkrumah’s government required every child to go to school. We helped our parents on their farms during vacations. I started class one (first grade) at Yonso and moved to class two at Assamang. In primary Form 2 (8th grade), I took the Common Entrance Examination, selected and was admitted to the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Secondary School at Bekwai. Assamang was and still is, a strong SDA town so the one secondary school I really knew of and wanted to attend was SDA Secondary School at Bekwai.


When my older brother, Isaac, who had attended the Mampong Trade School and was then working at the African Timber and Plywood Company at Samreboi heard about the secondary school I was to attend, he was not pleased. He insisted that I take the Common Entrance Examination again the next year and choose a technical school such as the Government (now Ghana) Secondary Technical School (GSTS). I found his T-square, drawing board and the engineering drawings he showed me from his days at the Mampong Trade School very fascinating. His experience and success with his technical/trade school training convinced him that technical training would be best for my future. To ensure it happened, he took over my guardianship and had me join him and attend Form 3 (9thgrade) at Samreboi where I retook the Common Entrance Examination one year later; this time with GSTS as my primary choice. That explains how I ended up at GSTS in 1964 and became a Giant. I am forever indebted and grateful to my brother Isaac for guiding me to GSTS.

Prof. Yaw Yeboah Whiles A Student at Ghana Secondary Technical School, Takoradi

HYPERCITIGH: Could you please tell us who Professor Yaw D. Yeboah was before he rose to stardom and how he ended up at Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: At my time at GSTS, you were either a metalwork or woodwork student. I was terrible at woodwork (carpentry) and chose metalwork. Thus, I took metalwork (theory and practical) and technical/engineering drawing in addition to all the usual science and non-science subjects. I worked hard at GSTS and was a good student as evidenced by the prizes I received at the Speech and Prize Giving Days; in particular, my selection in Form 4 as the school’s Scholar of the Year with many book prizes presented to me.


For the sixth form, a group of us from Block 1 (Houses 1 and 2) wanted to go to one of the Cape Coast schools. I chose Ghana National with my good friend Anthony Essilfie, and my other close friends, George Osei-Asomani and Samuel Asare, chose Adisadel. Although my father passed away just before the “O” level exams, I managed to still do well at the “O” level. My brother had assumed I was going to return to GSTS for the sixth form. It was only when the “O” level results came out that I indicated to him that I had selected Ghana National for Sixth form. He looked straight at me and said, “So, GSTS, an all-boys school, has prepared you well and now you think you will be better off at a school with girls!” He quietly went to his room, came back with transportation money and asked me to immediately go to Ghana National, collect my form and take it to GSTS. When I got to Ghana National, their headmaster tried to dissuade me, as I was their top student for the incoming Sixth Form Class based on the “O” level results. However, once I told him I will have no roof over my head and he was convinced of what was at stake if I did not go back to GSTS, he released my form and I took it to GSTS. I was pleased and appreciated the eagerness of GSTS to have me back.


Interestingly, the Giants at the West Africa Examination Council out of pride, had spread the word that I received the highest math score in West Africa so when I got back on campus for Lower 6, all I could hear from students and staff was, “The whole West Africa”! It almost became my nickname but died down after a while. I must admit, it made me proud to hear it and to think that it could motivate other students to excel in subsequent years


I had planned to go to Ghana’s premier engineering university, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) to study chemical engineering after GSTS, but during Lower 6, we found out that one of our classmates (Frank Adekpuitor) had been admitted to the Rochester Institute of Technology and was going to leave for the United States at the end of Lower 6. That was when those of us who felt we were academically “better” students than him, became aware of the possibility of attending university in America. He, obviously, was smarter than we were! That emboldened me to think that after GSTS, I could perhaps attend one of the best engineering schools in the world and applied to MIT and Caltech. Since I did not have the means to pay and register for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), I used the resources at the GSTS library to get the addresses of many university professors in the US in Chemistry, Chemical engineering and fields I was interested in. I wrote letters that pleaded with them to help pay for the SAT registration on my behalf to enable me to take the exam in Ghana. Guess what? Someone did and up to today, I do not know who did to thank the person. That is one of my biggest regrets. It has, however, taught me the value and importance of being kind, generous and charitable.


Based on my school records and the SAT results, MIT admitted me as a freshman and Caltech wanted me to consider taking a placement exam to be considered for the sophomore class. When I took the Caltech letter to Mr. White, my British math teacher at GSTS who was married to a Ghanaian woman, he explained to me that Caltech wanted to consider me coming as a second-year student. Based on what I had heard about how many students struggled with the first-year university exam (FUE) at KNUST, I could not envision entering the university as a second-year student and so I accepted the MIT freshman offer. The best part of my admission to MIT was that my classmate and good friend who was also my key competitor at GSTS, Jonathan Abrokwah, was also admitted. Thus, Jon and I, after seven good years at GSTS, left to MIT in 1971 where we were roommates in our first year. It should not be hard to imagine the strong and positive impact having the two of us as Giants at MIT had on us. We were extremely pleased that the next year, Joseph Okor and Abu Mama were admitted to MIT from GSTS. The above narrative provides some detail of how I ended up at MIT. Again, without my brother Isaac’s wisdom, guidance and strong influence, I may not have ended up at MIT if I had gone to Ghana National.

Joseph Yaw D. Yeboah holding his four diplomas at Commencement, June 1975. Photo: Calvin Campbell/MIT News Office. Courtesy MIT Museum


HYPERCITIGH: Could you please tell us a little bit about your first impressions of MIT?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: My first impression was that everything looked bigger, modern and well maintained and the food was different, good and plentiful! I loved the pizza, cheeseburgers and scrambled eggs. Academically, it was not as difficult as we expected it to be especially in our first year. This is to the credit of the solid foundation GSTS gave us through the many wonderful teachers we had. We were very strong in the math and sciences and that gave us a chance to catch up on the other courses that were new to us. The resources (facilities and quality of professors) at MIT were out of this world to us. The experience of having world-renowned full professors teaching us in the first year, often with their own textbooks (e.g., Profs. George Thomas (calculus) and Victor Weiskoff (Physics)), was a dream come true. That made us work extra hard to try to find errors in the books for bragging rights!


The things that made the transition very smooth for us were the presence of other Ghanaian and African students at MIT as well as the host families we were each assigned to by MIT. For example, two Ghanaians from Achimota (William Asamoah and I. Yaw Akoto) who had entered MIT the previous year met me at the Boston Logan International Airport upon arrival from Ghana, via New York. They were there with my assigned host family (Mr. and Mrs. Bagwell). MIT had arranged and given them the details of my arrival so they could come and welcome me upon arrival. That level of reception made it very easy to plug into the MIT/US system with little or no difficulty.


HYPERCITIGH: What were some of the challenges you encountered which threatened your academic life?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: I honestly had no serious challenges. I was too focused to let anything threaten my academic life as you put it. Perhaps, the one thing we were not prepared for was racism, which we had not experienced growing up in Ghana and did not fully understand. At GSTS, we had non-Ghanaians from India and Europe in some of our classes but no one viewed or treated the other as inherently superior or inferior even if you felt you were better prepared in some subjects than they were. Not fully understanding racism in its many forms made it difficult to recognize when someone was being racist towards me. On the other hand, it made life easy, as being oblivious to it meant not having to waste energy and time reacting or dealing with it. For example, in one class, the professor handed our test papers back by calling the names and giving you your test paper once you raised your hand. I believe he wanted to match the test scores with the faces/names. When he called, Joseph Yeboah and I raised my hand he ignored me, and kept calling the name a few more times still looking for Joseph Yeboah. Eventually, I got up and walked to him at the front to get my test paper. He was visibly shocked and dumbfounded. It was only after he had given out all the test papers and indicated the grade distribution that I realized I had received the highest grade. He likely did not expect me, a black man, to be the Joseph Yeboah who had gotten the highest grade. Because of the strong academic background, we had from GSTS, it made it easy to overcome or overlook such challenges.


One thing (I am not sure if I should call it a challenge) that I had to get used to is the concept of class average on a test. In the Ghana/British system, I was used to always aiming for 100%. At MIT, sometimes the professors gave such difficult tests that you only needed the class average to get a B and above the class average to get an A. In one of my first chemical engineering tests, I got 49% and went straight to my advisor to drop the class. Knowing that I was a good student, my advisor asked me the class average on the test and I told him I did not know and did not care as all I wanted was to drop the class. He called the professor to find out more about the test. Based on the conversation exchange between them he was visibly amused. After hanging up the phone, he asked what was wrong with me. He then proceeded to let me know that the professor indicated the test was hard and the class average was only 31% with the highest score being 51%. Thus, with my 49% and second highest score I had an A in the test. I could not believe it and kept asking how I can have an A with a failing 49%! After that experience, I made sure to write the class average next to my test score each time I got back my papers.

Being homesick was not a major challenge, as I was focused and knew I was there for a purpose with every intention of returning to Ghana.

Photo Credit: blackhistory.mit.edu

HYPERCITIGH: Four degrees in four years! This is amazing.  What inspired you to pursue this feat?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: To be honest with you, I did not start knowing or even thinking of getting four degrees in four years. What happened is that I knew I wanted to do chemical engineering because of my desire for a profession that combined my strong interest in chemistry, math, and physics. I was particularly interested in chemistry and took extra chemistry courses in addition to my chemical engineering courses each semester. While I felt good about my background in the sciences, I felt a big void in me in areas as economics and management. Once I realized that MIT departments had no restrictions on who took their classes, I decided to broaden myself by also taking some management courses each term. Taking all those extra courses meant there was not much room for breaks during the day as I went from one classroom to the other. The evenings were for some soccer/physical exercise and daily homework in all the courses I was taking. It was better to be busy than bored! I kept taking the extra load each semester until I found out in my junior year that in addition to my chemical engineering degree, I only needed a few additional courses to take in chemistry and management to meet the degree requirements for those majors. I, therefore, went ahead and completed those courses to meet the bachelor’s degree requirements in Chemistry and Management in addition to my Chemical Engineering degree. That explains the three bachelor’s degrees.


With respect to the fourth degree, the Chemical Engineering department at MIT had a unique master’s degree program in Chemical Engineering Practice that allowed students who met a set of academic requirements to apply for graduate status in their junior year. Students accepted into the program earned graduate status while still undergraduates enabling them to take graduate level courses. In the senior or fourth year, these students were required to spend one semester working at one or more of the department’s Practice School centers stationed at selected industrial companies. The students worked in groups of 3-5 on a practical industrial problem facing the company and presented their results, conclusions, and recommendations within one month.  Thus, each student ended up working on 3-4 real life or industrial problems that semester/term. The Practice School experience was in lieu of thesis and allowed you to complete the degree requirements for the master’s degree.  These students had to make sure they had completed the requirements for both their bachelors in Chemical Engineering and Masters in Chemical Engineering Practice by the end of their senior year to graduate with both degrees.


As you may have guessed, I applied and was accepted into the program and made sure I met all requirements by the time I graduated in June 1975. I attended the Chemical Engineering Practice School at American Cyanamid Company in Bound Brook, New Jersey, in the spring semester of 1975. It was one of my best life experiences as a chemical engineer. I was aware the chemical engineering department preferred for their own undergraduate students to go elsewhere (e.g., Berkeley or Caltech) for graduate school. Thus, nearly all the Ph.D. students in the MIT chemical engineering department were students who came from other schools. Being an international student, however, I did not want to go to a new environment and since I already had graduate status in the department, I registered for the Chemical Engineering Ph.D. qualifying exam at the end of the fall semester of my senior year and passed. Thus, I left for the Practice School the next semester, knowing I was guaranteed to return after graduation to start my Ph.D. in the department. This was a major relief, as now I did not have to worry about applying to another school for my Ph.D. or having a break in my academic progression. I could literally start my Ph.D. work the day after graduation. Yaw Akoto who was a year ahead of me did the same thing and it shows how much we helped and influenced each other.


HYPERCITIGH: Who has been your major source of motivation?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: It became abundantly clear to me, growing up in the village, that education was my ticket out of farming, poverty, and the typical village life. My father used to tell me if I did not want to be a farmer like him and wished to wear a suit and tie, then I had to go to school and work hard. That, I guess, likely motivated me at an early age to work hard so I could work my way out of poverty and the village life to wearing a suit and tie! I suppose hard work also created a hunger in me for knowledge. Obviously, my older brother, Isaac, was a major motivating factor. He was so hardworking, talented and dependable that African Timber and Plywood selected him for technical and managerial training in the United Kingdom. Upon his return, he rose to be the Chief Engineer at African Timber and Plywood (ATP), Samreboi, and the Managing Director of the Benso Oil Palm Plantation (BOPP), Benso. It is remarkable he achieved this level of success with his technical/trade school training and no formal university engineering degree! He is a clear example of why we need more technical/trade schools to train and develop the workforce to build and sustain manufacturing industries in Ghana.


At this stage of my career, I believe, I am now more motivated by the desire to impart knowledge to the younger generation of students as well as preserving my legacy to ensure the wellbeing and success of future Yeboahs (my descendants).


HYPERCITIGH: Sir, you could not have achieved this without effective time management and friends. How did you do that?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: You are absolutely right! As you can imagine, time management was key as well as the help the African students gave each other as friends. In particular, Yaw Akoto (Achimota) and Adu-Ntoso (Opoku Ware) and I were in the same department (chemical engineering) and took some classes together. We were able to motivate and help each other. Ghanaian students used to even cook and eat together. We learned to cook to survive on weekends and holidays when the cafeteria was closed. In particular, Yaw Akoto and Sammy Dzirasa (both from Achimota) were good cooks. We also had a good number of Ghanaian graduate students (John Polley, Kofi Agyeman, Kofi Bimpong Bota, Peter Eshun Dadzie, etc.) who were good mentors to those of us who were undergraduates. Some of these graduate students were there with their families who occasionally treated us with some good Ghanaian food. So yes, many friends contributed to our success at MIT.


With respect to the number of courses I took and how crucial it was to manage my time, I will tell you a little unknown and funny story. The MIT credit system required each student to take an average of 45 credits. So, the MIT computer was programmed for two digits (up to 99). If you took too few credits or was considered to be doing poorly, your name was sent to the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) for review and appropriate action. One semester, they sent my name to the committee. When my case came up for discussion, one of the professors (Prof. Housman) who was a member of the committee and also a housemaster at the East Campus dormitory indicated to the committee that one Yeboah had taken a music course of 9 credits from him that semester and had passed. Given the uncommon name Yeboah at MIT he wondered if it was the same Yeboah or someone else as the case showed that the Yeboah they were reviewing had only taken three (3) credits. Upon further investigation, the committee realized that I had actually taken 103 credits and that MIT’s two-digit computer had truncated the leading number making it 03. Up until then, MIT did not think anyone would be crazy enough to take more than 99 credits a semester. The professor could not wait to share this funny story with me when he next saw me.


HYPERCITIGH: Did your study life affect your social life?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: Believe me, I studied hard and played hard. I balanced my time studying and having a social life. My day was fully occupied with classes, physical activity (some soccer, swimming, running or tennis), chatting with friends, eating and some sleep. Other than the Freshman soccer team, I did not engage in any varsity level sporting activity at MIT, as I could not afford the time. On weekends, I added some party time, as I loved music and dancing. I did the social activities in moderation so it did not affect my academics. In a way, I did the same at GSTS. I played soccer and engaged in other athletic activities (e.g., hurdles) only for my House, Vanderpuye, but not for the school as that would have taken too much of my time. We had a very vibrant African Students Association and Intramural Soccer Team that competed well with the South American and Chinese teams. The Ghanaians in the Cambridge/Boston area also teamed up and played the Ghanaians in the Worcester area in soccer each year on the MIT field. We partied and had a lot of fun together. In my junior and senior years, I was actually in a serious relationship with an African American woman who was a graduate student in my department. She is the one who truly helped me to understand and learn to confront racism. Thus, my study life did not negatively affect my social life or vice versa. On the contrary, my social life and academic life complemented each other.




HYPERCITIGH: Were you poised for the attention that came along with this achievement?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: No, I was not as it was only after the news people contacted me that I realized I had done something unusual. I believe the news people picked the story up after some of the African American students and administrators began to make noise about the lack of news coverage of the story. It was when MIT, of all places, came out to say that they do not know if I was the first to receive four degrees in four years because they do not keep records of people with multiple degrees, that I became convinced I must have been the first and realized the significance of the achievement. The Boston newspapers first picked up the story and then newspapers from around the world including Ghana also put their own spins on the story. The one storyline I disliked most was when the Times of India titled their article, “African Goes Degree Hunting in the US”. Can you imagine that? By that time, I fully understood the subtle racism and attempts to always devalue the achievements of blacks to maintain the wrong, inaccurate and unacceptable superiority/inferiority beliefs of some races.


HYPERCITIGH: Sir, can I tell you that you have really made a mark at that institution.  Sometimes people think that it can’t be done and we need these examples.

PROF YAW YEBOAH: Thank you for your kind words. Of course, it can be done and it requires hard work and good time management. In fact, another good friend of mine, Kofi Essandoh, who came to MIT from Fijai Secondary School and graduated two years later in 1977, also received four degrees in four years. Who knows, maybe the air, food, and water in the Sekondi-Takoradi area where GSTS and Fijai are located had something to do with all these multiple degrees! Unfortunately, Kofi Essandoh did not get as much news coverage since by that time it did not sound or look unusual.


HYPERCITIGH: We do believe that such a legacy is one that your unborn generations will be proud of. How has your family, more especially, that of your nuclear family been enjoying the limelight you have placed them in?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: I have four grown children and they grew up without unnecessary added pressure from home on my record. In fact, I will say growing up they did not know much about my accomplishments, as we did not talk about them at home. I also had my diplomas and awards mounted in my office. They only heard friends and associates often indicate, “You must be smart because your Dad was very smart”. Of course, they knew I came from a poor background in Ghana where they had visited before. They also must have noticed that I always had high and responsible job positions. Thus, they likely believed what others must have been saying. My wife and I simply encouraged them to work hard and get a good education. They did not feel any pressure to follow their Dad to MIT. On the contrary, what they heard was that I personally did not want them to go to MIT for undergraduate education. However, I strongly encouraged them to go to a high-rank research university for graduate education. Our approach must have worked as they are all grown and accomplished in their own right — two are medical doctors, one is an attorney and one is an engineer. My wife and I are very proud of them and their own accomplishments to date.


HYPERCITIGH: Were you sought after, with regards to people wanting to employ your services?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: After my Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering at MIT in 1979, I had job offers from several companies including General Electric (GE), Upjohn, and Stauffer Chemical. Within the GE Corporate Research and Development Center at Schenectady, NY, there were four divisions, each with a different technical focus area, which was interested in me joining them. Since I did not have a strong preference for any one of the four divisions, GE gave me the unusual employment option of not being officially affiliated with any one of them for my first month. Thus, I worked with each division for one week to know more about the people, the types of work done, and the working environment. After the one month, I chose to work in the group responsible for the process development of General Electric’s polymers and silicone products. I received a number of patents for my inventions in this group for the five years I was at GE.


HYPERCITIGH:  Sir, I would want to know if any of your family relation or black friends also attended MIT?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: Yes, my younger brother, Kwame, also came to MIT when I was a graduate student and obtained his undergraduate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. What is interesting is that when then Chancellor at MIT, Dr. Paul Gray, who is an electrical engineer, heard that my younger brother was coming to MIT to do electrical engineering, he specifically requested to be assigned to Kwame as his freshman academic advisor. They developed a very close relationship and stayed in touch until Dr. Gray’s death. I had met with the top administrators of MIT, Chancellor Gray, and President Jerome Wiesner, on a few occasions in the president’s office to discuss concerns on a number of racial incidences at MIT, especially when I was a graduate student and an executive of the African Students Association. I believe Dr. Gray’s curiosity about me through our meetings and my record at MIT motivated his decision. I suspect, he wanted to know more about me and what makes me tick through my brother Kwame. I am pleased their relationship worked out well to their mutual benefit.

Credit: GSTS Alumni Association of North America

With respect to black friends, Jonathan Abrokwah, Joseph Okor, Abu Mama and John Polley were the only ones who attended MIT that I knew in Ghana before I went to MIT. The others were all the friendships we developed while we were together at MIT. Some of the other Ghanaian friends in the undergraduate years not yet mentioned in this article include Herbert Winful, Richard Okine, and Latif A. G. Raji. Another member of my year group, Joe Ogwell from Kenya, was a very good friend. Interestingly, a few people who knew and were close to me at MIT, still call me Big Joe.


HYPERCITIGH: After MIT and you’ve engaged in a number of other things. Can you very briefly give us a sense about some of the things you’ve done after graduating from MIT?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: After MIT, I worked at General Electric before joining the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), Saudi Arabia, where I did research on petroleum and natural gas at the Research Institute and taught in the Chemical Engineering Department. I actually applied and got a lecturer position in 1984 at KNUST prior to deciding to take the KFUPM appointment. If I remember right, I was to receive 13,000 cedis per annum (not the Ghana Cedi but the old cedi) at that time. I opted not to return to Ghana and take the position, as Ghana was then quite tough to live. I left KFUPM to join Clark Atlanta University (CAU) in Atlanta where I helped develop a new engineering program and served as the Technical Director of the Research Center for Science and Technology. I also served at CAU as the associate dean for Arts and Sciences and was responsible for the seven science departments of Allied Health, Biology, Computer Science, Chemistry, Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics. I left Clark Atlanta to become the head of the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University. The EME department housed Penn States ABET-accredited degree programs in petroleum and natural gas engineering, energy engineering, mining engineering, and environmental systems engineering as well as the Energy Business and Finance program. The first ABET-accredited degree program in Energy Engineering was established during my tenure as department head. I left Penn State to become the Dean of Engineering at Florida State University (FSU) and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). These two universities have a unique joint College of Engineering, the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, at Tallahassee, Florida. I have since stepped down as the Dean but remain on the faculty as professor of chemical and biomedical engineering engaged in teaching and research. I recently graduated a Ghanaian Ph.D. student (James Akrasi) in chemical engineering.

Former head of the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University Credit : e-https://www.e-education.psu.edu/egee120/node/45


HYPERCITIGH: Sir, do you have any piece of advice for all Black students?

PROF YAW YEBOAH: My advice is to believe in yourself, work hard, be content and positive always, and spend energy and time only on things that are within your control. It is important to realize early that the only person you can control in life is yourself. Lastly, build life-long relationships with family, friends and even institutions (e.g., your alma mater) and learn to give back by paying forward to others the goodness and kindness people showed to you in your life.


Thank you for the opportunity to answer your many and insightful questions.


Best wishes.


NOTE: The Hypercitigh Media General Team will like to thank Professor Yaw Yeboah for his time and effort in making this exclusive interview a success. The Team will also like to Thank Giant Tetteh Abbeyquaye, Ph.D. for his vital support in making this interview a success.

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By: Chris /Hypercitigh.com &Tetteh Abbeyquaye, Ph.D.

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