Monday, September 22, 2014

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After Two Decades, an African Dream Realized

For most people, college graduation marks a key moment of departure on life’s journey. For 40-year-old Bernard Doe, graduation from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce will be a long-anticipated moment of arrival, the fulfillment of a dream born more than 20 years ago in Africa.

Recognized as an outstanding student in his hometown of Accra, Ghana, Doe gained admission to the University of Ghana following his high school graduation in 1992. But after traveling to Japan and Hawaii as part of an international student exchange program – Doe is fluent in both Japanese and English, along with four other languages – he came up with a different plan.

“I wanted to go to a U.S. university,” he said.

Keep on Dreaming

Just getting to America was no easy feat, but in 1999 Doe moved across the Atlantic to Northern Virginia to pursue his dream. Living in Alexandria with a relative, he immediately visited the local campus of Northern Virginia Community College, informally known as “NOVA.” There, he was apprised of the cost of attaining an American education.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. This is going to be dicey,’” he said.

Undeterred, he set about raising the money for his education. His first job was as a floor salesman for Circuit City, a position in which he excelled. He then moved into the more lucrative field of furniture sales. At Value City Furniture in Falls Church, he quickly distinguished himself as one of the company’s elite performers, selling more than $1 million worth of furniture for six years running. He eventually moved to Havertys Furniture in Woodbridge, where his performance again shone.

Doe credits his mother with instilling his salesmanship skills. As a boy, she sent him and one of his six brothers out to find customers for her homemade soap, he said. “She is a hard-working woman, and she instilled the same discipline in me.”

Changes of Course

In 2008, Doe learned that – back in Ghana – both his mother and his father had become seriously ill. “I was the only person in my family who was really financially able to help them, and I was willing to do that,” Doe said.

That November, he sold his house in Woodbridge and returned to Ghana. “I have always believed that you should not be too attached to material things,” Doe said. “I was able to go home and save my parents. Today, they are alive – and I am proud, and I am happy.”

Back in Ghana, Doe and two partners set up a successful business distributing commercial cleaning products to hotels and restaurants. Still, he said, “I had that feeling inside – ‘Ah, you gave up on your school dreams. What are you going to do about it?’”

One Sunday afternoon, Doe sat on a beach outside one of the hotels his company serviced. “I took inventory of my life,” he said. “What I had done right, what I had done wrong, what I had learned from certain mistakes. At the end of the day I said to myself, ‘It’s never too late. If I want to go back to school, this is the time.’”

He’s Back – and Better than Ever

Doe, who had become an American citizen before his 2008 return to Ghana, came back to Woodbridge, secured the necessary Pell Grants, and signed up for courses at NOVA. He earned straight A’s.

“I thought to myself, ‘With the grades that I’m getting, I should aim high,’” Doe said.

More, his years working in the real world had shown him he had a keen aptitude for business. “Now,” he said, “I had a goal. I wanted to learn more about business so I could eventually go back to Ghana and help businesses grow.”

With this in mind, he set his sights on U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce. “I decided to visit,” he said. “I drove down on a fine Saturday, looked at the school, and I just fell in love. I told myself that I would earn all A’s, and that I was going to become a member of the McIntire community.”

Doe didn’t fool around. Hearing from his NOVA counselors that admission to U.Va. would be difficult – even unlikely – only propelled him to work harder, he said. “I wanted to prove them wrong,” he said. “And I wanted to go to one of the best business schools in the country.”

Doe finished the two-year community college program in just 18 months, maintaining a GPA of 3.95 while selling furniture part-time at Havertys. “I just kept pushing myself,” he said. “I was so driven to succeed.”

The day he received his letter of acceptance from U.Va., he said, is one he will never forget.

“I was at work when I got the email,” he recalled. “Everybody started jumping up and down and saying, ‘You’ve done it, Bernard! You’ve made it!’” (Doe gave special thanks to his friends and colleagues at Havertys, all of whom, he said, offered him their unwavering support and encouragement; his particular thanks go to D.C. area branch manager Jeff Scheetz.)

A Dream Come True

Doe said his time at McIntire – with its “great students, great staff, great professors, great integrity” – has been more than he could possibly have hoped for. “Everything I’ve learned has given me a broader scope and a totally different perspective on life,” he said. “When I reflect on the tons of knowledge that I’ve been exposed to over the last two years, it’s just incredible to comprehend.”

Describing Doe as “a gentleman with exceptional manners” and “a true pleasure to have in class,” McIntire professor Lucien Bass said that Doe himself brought something “great” to McIntire.  

“Bernard is vastly experienced in many world cultures, and has done so much that our more traditional students have before them,” he said. “We all benefited from his thoughtful and insightful contributions in the classroom and to the McIntire community as a whole.”

Doe said that for all his globetrotting, there’s only one place he loses his way.

“Sometimes I get lost in lectures,” he said. “Not because I am not smart enough to understand what the professors are teaching, but because I keep pondering over the power of education and knowledge. I’m sitting there thanking God for this great opportunity, this great privilege of coming to McIntire, and it’s just a great feeling.”

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