Even though she was less than 400 miles from the Equator, Sol Park, ’15, often found herself tossing a cardigan sweater in her bag on the way to work this summer. She was fending off the chilly air conditioning in the one-story office building where she interned. It was a reminder of how Ghana was resetting her expectations of West Africa, which is exactly why she went there in the first place.
“I wanted to go to a place that wasn’t touristy, where I can learn for myself and I didn’t have any stereotypes,” she said. “If you read about Africa in the newspapers, you’re going to read about Mali, Somalia, CAR [Central African Republic]. Ghana is not really mentioned because they’re stable. I wanted to know, OK, why are they stable? What’s happening there? What is driving their economy?”
Park, an international studies and economics major, interned in Accra, Ghana’s capital, at the Imani Center for Policy and Education, which was recently ranked Africa’s fifth-most-influential think tank by Foreign Policy magazine. Imani’s mission is educational; it produces studies and takes on research projects that illustrate the benefits of and challenges to a free-market economy.
Every morning, cardigan in her bag, Park saw the free market in action as she negotiated with taxi drivers to get to work from her apartment. With practice, she learned that 10 cedis, or about $2.50 at official exchange rates, was the going rate. The going rate for rice, a research assignment during her internship to help determine the impact of a tariff, proved more elusive.
There was no ready database or spreadsheet on local rice prices, so she learned a lesson in data collection, painstakingly digging through weekly government reports produced intermittently over years to piece together the rise and fall of the price of this important commodity. She also worked on a paper about the evolution and challenges of the local entrepreneurial class and critiqued a second paper on the illicit flow of finance in West Africa’s ECOWAS region.
“I definitely learned a lot,” she says. “Researching the challenges entrepreneurs face, I was particularly focused on the difficulties of access to finance. In Ghana, it’s mostly the informal sector, and it’s really hard to have collateral or documents that prove you will be able to pay back funds, especially if you’re a small enterprise and especially if you’re a woman.”
Living abroad has more than once deepened the education of Park, an international student. She grew up in the megacities of Seoul, South Korea, where she was born, and Shanghai, China, where her family moved when she was 9. What brought her to Richmond was her desire for a liberal arts education — and an admittedly romantic notion of what that meant.
“One dream that I had in high school was that I wanted to have coffee with my professor, and that is possible at UR,” she says. “Everything is possible at UR. You have really close relationships with professors. I often don’t make an appointment for office hours. I just walk in, and we don’t have to talk about something academic. We can talk about career advice, internships. I love that because here people know you and really genuinely care about you.”
Though she intensely missed her megacity life as a first-year student, “I fell in love with Richmond my second year,” she says.
Here, she learned that professors will sit down with you for coffee, but not all cities have buses that appear every five minutes. In Accra, she learned that cities with roosters, dirt roads, and haggling taxi drivers also have think tanks, deeply complex economic issues, and opportunities to make an impact. It’s the kind of broad-based education she sought out, and she wouldn’t change it.
“I’m very grateful for the fact that I’m going to graduate a Spider.”