Madam Lena Nordstrom, Swedish Ambassador to Liberia, last Saturday challenged the graduates of the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) not to take lightly their accomplishments after attaining secondary diplomas in technical and vocational skills. They should rather see themselves as shining examples to other Liberian youth.
“You are now challenged,” she told the 314 graduates, “to put your skills to work for the advancement of your communities and society as a whole.”
This profound and challenging advice from Ambassador Nordstrom was given on her behalf by the Swedish Embassy’s Head of Development Cooperation, Ms. Elizabeth Harleman.
For reasons unknown to herself, Ambassador Nordstrom’s charge to the BWI grads starkly reminded Observer Publisher Kenneth Y. Best of one line he remembered from the Valedictory Address of St. Teresa Convent’s dux in 1950, 66 years ago.
Kenneth, then a bare-footed St. Patrick’s third grader, legs shining with palm kernel oil, had accompanied his older sister Muriel, a Convent junior clad in white, to the graduation.
Standing in the crowded Convent auditorium (who would offer a poor, barefooted lad a seat?), Kenneth heard the brilliant 16-year-old dux tell her wildly clapping audience, “Today, I am no longer a mere school girl, but a responsible woman in the Republic.”
Cora Ann, however, did not say which “republic” she was referring to. For immediately upon graduation she entered Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University), where she soon earned her Bachelor’s degree, then went on to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she took the Ph.D in Education. While at
Harvard, she met and married a Nigerian chemical engineer and shortly thereafter he took her to Nigeria, where they found immediate employment. But during the Nigerian Civil War little over a decade later, the couple returned to the United States with their children. So Cora Ann was perhaps referring in her Valedictory Address to “the Republic of the World,” in the same way so many BWI and other Liberian graduates, following the 1980 coup d’état and our own civil war, are today rendering professional services all over the world. She became a senior official in the New Jersey School System.
But “responsible woman in the republic”—is that not what the Swedish Ambassador told the BWI grads last Saturday? Urging them to take themselves seriously, just as Cora Ann Phelps took herself seriously 66 years ago, Ambassador Nordstrom told them: “You are a great example to other Liberian youth, and you are [challenged] to put your skills to work for your communities and your society as a whole.”
Without knowing it—how could she? She is new here— Ambassador Nordstrom was telling them to follow the footsteps of such BWI graduates as Samuel Burnett and Harry Yuan, both Electricity graduates of BWI, the former in 1957, the latter in 1961, who went on to study Electrical Engineering in the USA and returned to head the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), each in his time, as Managing Director.
There are so many other Liberian technical institutions that have been headed by BWI graduates. We know of several who have served as Ministers of Public Works, among them Joseph Boayue, Class of 1938 (eighth grade), Yudu Gray, and arguably the most celebrated of them all, Gabriel Johnson Tucker, Class of ‘54. Tucker ran the Ministry with considerable success. The bridge linking central Monrovia to Bushrod Island, built under his watch, is named for him.
Gabriel’s classmate, Edwin Dunbar, for many years ran a successful civil engineering firm in Texas, and Gabriel joined his classmate there during exile in the USA.
It is because so many old BWI boys and girls, having left their alma mater and pursued advanced training in their various technical and vocational fields, are doing so well and making money because of it in the Diaspora, especially in North America, that the strongest of all Liberian alumni associations in that part of the world is the BWI Alumni Association of North America (BWIAANA).
We pray for continued peace in Liberia that will allow these and other BWI graduates to travel to Sweden, other parts of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa for advanced training to return and help rebuild Liberia.
May some of them also return to Kakata and accelerate the expansion and refinement of Agricultural, Business, Technical, Vocational and Industrial training at their beloved “Dear Booker T.”
Such a patriotic initiative, on the part of BWI Alumni, here and in the Diaspora will be an important contribution towards the realization of that most encouraging and laudable pledge by Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, to make the Booker Washington Agricultural and Industrial Institute (BWI) “a center of excellence.”