Kofi Gunu: ’17 Alumnus Named Fourth Rhodes Scholar in Augustana History

 Augustana alum Kofi Gunu named the 2019 Rhodes Scholar for West Africa. 

Luck and fate may have brought him to South Dakota in 2012 but it’s hard work and perseverance that got Augustana alum Kofi Gunu named the 2019 Rhodes Scholar for West Africa. Oxford will be the next stop on a remarkable academic journey that has already spanned four continents.

Gunu, a native of Ghana, graduated summa cum laude from Augustana University, where he received a B.A. in Government/International Affairs in 2017. While finishing his final year at Augustana, Gunu won a coveted award called the Schwarzman Scholarship, which granted him the opportunity to obtain his master’s degree in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Graduate degree in hand, Gunu moved back to Ghana to work for the West African nation’s vice president as a national service fellow. He is currently assisting the government to design an apprenticeship program and to promote a more robust partnership with China.

Considered the oldest and most prestigious academic award in the world, the Rhodes Scholarship covers the cost of any postgraduate course at the University of Oxford for up to three years. Gunu is hoping to use his award to pursue a Ph.D. in International Relations. The 22-year-old is the fourth person to be named a Rhodes Scholar in Augustana history.

The other winners are Arthur Larson '31, Paul Rogness '58, and Rafiullah Kakar,‘10.

So how did Gunu get to South Dakota in the first place? “It is a pretty improbable story,” he writes from his home in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. In 2012, Gunu won a U.S. State Department scholarship to spend a year as an exchange student at an American high school.

Beneficiaries of this scholarship, called the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, are placed randomly around the United States. The Bennetts, a Brandon family, came across Gunu’s profile and decided to open their home to him.

"At the time, I had no idea where South Dakota was on the map and had never heard of Augustana University.”

Gunu soon discovered Augustana when he began considering life after high school. “I really wanted to continue my education in the States, and AU became the obvious choice, in part because two of the teachers I most admired at BVHS [Brandon Valley High School], Justin Lovrien and Matt Christensen, were Augie alums.”

Lovrien and Christensen not only encouraged the youngster to apply to Augustana, but worked to help him overcome the biggest hurdle to higher education in America for an international student — funding. The duo organized a “College for Kofi” hog roast that rallied the Brandon Valley community and raised part of Gunu’s first-year tuition at Augustana.

Gunu says he will always be very grateful to everyone who made that initial investment in his college education.

“And, of course, it helped that Augustana granted me a very generous ‘Distinguished Scholars’ package, without which my dream of becoming a Viking would have been totally out of reach.”

Once at Augustana, he says he benefited from classmates and teachers who built him up both mentally and spiritually. “The staff at the International Programs Office (IPO) provided very relevant career advice, and there were alumni who connected me to scholarships and other opportunities. I was pushed to excel.”

Gunu also threw himself into the Augustana community. He worked as a resident adviser (RA) for two years in Bergsaker and Granskou Halls, and served in the Augustana Student Association [ASA] and even launched what he calls a “quixotic” bid for ASA vice president in 2016. While he lost that contest, he believes his candidacy sparked conversation around issues that matter to Augustana’s growing international population.

“I wanted to make Augustana the sort of place where students from diverse backgrounds felt welcomed and needed.” Gunu co-founded the first African Students Union at Augustana and helped build the Peace Club into a platform for service and dialogue. Distinguished Professor Dr. Patrick Hicks, who serves as Augustana’s Rhodes Scholar adviser, says, “He was involved in Civitas, our Honors Program, and he graduated summa cum laude. He was a Peace Scholar, and basically, he received just about every major award we could give him. Of course he had to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship.”

Gunu says one of the best things about South Dakota was the sheer number of incredible opportunities that came his way in the five years he called South Dakota home. The Boys State (summer leadership and citizenship programs for high school juniors sponsored by The American Legion) delegate of 2013 worked on U.S. Senator Mike Rounds’ campaign in 2014 and later in his Capitol Hill office and for the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

Gunu also did a summer internship with Sanford Health that allowed him to visit and help several clinics in his home country. Reflecting on these experiences, Gunu says he doubts that similar opportunities would have been available to him in Ghana or even elsewhere in the U.S. “In many respects, South Dakota was the best possible place I could have found myself.”

While the opportunities were amazing, Gunu dealt with the same challenges many international students face going to college far away from home. “I didn’t get to see my family for four consecutive years, and my financial situation was at times precarious,” he says.

“Alongside my academic work, I juggled several jobs on and off campus,” he adds. “There were moments that tested my resolve. I believe part of the reason I succeeded is that I kept my eyes fixed on the goal: to become the first person from any branch of my family to graduate from university.”

However, Gunu does not want people to see his selection for the Rhodes Scholarship as the product of hard work and perseverance alone. “Being back in Ghana has made me keenly aware that quality educational opportunities remain inaccessible to millions of children in the country, no matter how intelligent or motivated they may be. I was lucky that I got the chance to escape those structural issues, but many many others have not been as fortunate,” he says. Gunu says this realization motivates his desire to be an agent of transformational change in Ghana.

Gunu is the third Rhodes Scholar for West Africa since the scholarship was reinstated for the sub-continent in 2017. According to Ike Chioke, the Rhodes National Secretary for West Africa, a total of 2,134 applications were submitted in 2018.

Rigorous screening narrowed the number down to 10 finalists who were invited to Lagos, Nigeria, for a weekend of in-person interviews. Gunu came out on top at the end of this process. Only one scholarship slot is available for all of West Africa. For comparison, 32 Rhodes Scholars are selected in the U.S. each year, although West Africa has a slightly larger population.

Gunu says the rarity of the opportunity makes him even more determined to use his education to benefit his community and country. Gunu shares, “My dream is to serve Ghana as a diplomat. I believe Africa’s growing relationship with China will condition the continent’s future for decades to come. I am headed to Oxford to gain knowledge and experience to ensure that China-Africa relations yield positive dividends for our people and our environment.” 

Gunu says he is thankful to South Dakotans and AU for nourishing him as few other communities could have done. He reserves his biggest gratitude for the AU professors who wrote letters of recommendation to support his application. “We are extremely proud of Kofi and his accomplishments,” says Dr. Hicks. “To receive an award of this caliber is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Kofi left a lasting legacy of leadership at Augustana. He is truly a role model for students.”

Greta Stewart
Editorial Strategist