Brian Arbic flipped through a scrapbook from his days as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching math and physics in Ghana nearly 20 years ago. He found an old class roster, neatly written by hand on ruled paper, and pointed to the name of one of his best students—Joseph Ansong. Before leaving the western African nation to pursue an academic career, Arbic visited Ansong, who had moved to a new school. The American was sad to see it was a shabby place with poorly trained teachers who often skipped class. The son of a poor corn farmer, Ansong couldn’t afford a better school. The future didn’t look bright for him.
“I remember thinking that Joseph could have gone to the University of Michigan and succeeded here if he were American,” Arbic said.
After losing touch for decades, the teacher and his former pupil are back together again, this time as colleagues, working in offices next to each other in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at U-M. Their improbable reunion is an inspiring story about the power of idealism, education, hard work and the enduring bonds between teachers and students.
Arbic grew up in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and majored in mathematics and physics at U-M. Before going to graduate school, he wanted to take a few years off doing something adventurous. He discussed his options with Ed Diehl, a graduate student in physics at the time. Diehl, now an associate research scientist at U-M, described his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania.
“By the end of that conversation,” Arbic said, “I thought, OK, that’s what I want to do.”
The encounter was an important part of “the Michigan experience,” he said. “This is a huge university with all kinds of people around,” he said, “so you meet people who have done interesting things, including people who have been in the Peace Corps, and that’s what did it for me.”
Serious about teaching
He was sent to the town of Damongo in northern Ghana in 1990 to teach math and physics to nearly 200 students in a high school. It didn’t take long for Arbic to notice that Joseph was one of the brightest students in the class. “But he was pretty quiet,” he said. “I don’t remember him coming by and asking for advice.”
Arbic left a deep impression on Ansong. The bright, energetic and young teacher gave the school a huge boost, the African scholar said.
“It was a remote area, so you didn’t have good teachers coming over. They wanted to stay in the cities,” Ansong said. “So when you get someone like Brian who is serious about teaching, it was very helpful to us. He did a good job. I know that if he weren’t around, I would have failed physics. The whole class would have failed physics.”
Arbic wasn’t an instant hit. During the first few months, the idealistic young American spent much of his time teaching concepts. But in an education system centered on rote memorization, what the students really wanted was to be coached on how to pass the exams that were the sole determiners of their future, Ansong said.
“So if you are teaching and you aren’t bringing in past exams to demonstrate these are sample questions that you can solve, it was sort of like, ‘No, he’s not a good teacher,’” Ansong said.
Arbic said he eventually caught on and started teaching by using past exam questions as examples. “I would say, ‘Let’s solve the 1985 math question #47,’ then there was a lot more interest.”
The students also thought Arbic was strange because he would often go to the market to get his own food. In Ghana, students are expected to honor their teachers by serving them, doing their grocery shopping and household chores.
Arbic left Ghana in 1993 and earned a doctorate in physical oceanography from the Joint Program between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution before eventually returning to U-M, where he’s an assistant professor of physical oceanography and ocean modeling.
After passing his national exams with Arbic’s help, Ansong moved to another school with a faculty of local teachers. His physics instructor was a local man who did trading on the side and was often gone on business trips. “So for a month, he would only come to class once,” he said. His chemistry teacher was a laboratory technician who didn’t have a chemistry degree. His math teacher only covered one-sixth of the material they were supposed to study. “You had to learn on your own. Take out the textbook and read,” Ansong said.
Despite the challenges, Ansong got into the University of Cape Coast and graduated at the top of his class. He was awarded a scholarship from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where he earned a master’s degree and developed an interest in fluid dynamics. He earned a doctorate in applied mathematics from the University of Alberta in Canada.
During those busy years, the two men lost touch. But Arbic said that out of the blue in 2008, six of his former students in Ghana emailed him independently, thanking him for his teaching and updating him about their lives. One had a master’s degree from the U.K., while another was a health technician in Indiana. But he had yet to hear from Ansong.
“I was really curious about Joseph’s case because he was one of my best students and I was wondering how all that worked out,” he said.
He asked the others for Ansong’s address and by searching the Internet found out he was at University of Alberta working with Bruce Sutherland, a professor he knows well. “I wrote to Bruce and said, ‘Do you realize your student was my student many years ago?’ It was pretty funny.”
In late 2010, Arbic began talking to Ansong about the possibility of doing post-doctoral work at U-M. He eventually arrived last May and is part of a National Science Foundation-funded project studying how the ocean dissipates energy and mixes. Ansong’s success illustrates one of the key takeaways of Arbic’s experience in Ghana.
“I remember telling people the best students there could do well at the best institutions here,” he said, “but they just don’t have the opportunity.”