Tufts University

Bridging the Gap in Ghana

Ghana GoldA trip to Ghana this winter gave Steven Koltai (A'76, F'78) a first-hand look at the issues facing a developing country and a rare opportunity to bond with students at Tufts today.

Steven Koltai had always wanted to visit Africa, but the former entrepreneur, entertainment executive and international investment banker wasn't interested in signing on for a luxury safari or being pampered at a five-star hotel. Anyone can take a vacation, he thought. The Tufts alum wanted something more.

Koltai got his wish this winter when he traveled to Ghana with six Tufts undergraduates and their professor, Pearl Robinson, an expert in African studies. During an action-packed, two-week tour, the group traveled around the country in a mini-bus, meeting with artists, educators, government officials and leaders from Ghana's gold industry. The trip provided an inside look at the economic and social impact of gold—a major Ghanaian export. For Koltai, getting to know his fellow travelers was as valuable as the trip itself.

"Getting a window into what kids are like at Tufts today was probably, for me, as moving and as profound as any of the things that I saw in Ghana."

— Steven Koltai

"Getting a window into what kids are like at Tufts today was probably, for me, as moving and as profound as any of the things that I saw in Ghana," says Koltai. "There's no experience that I know of that connects the generations at Tufts like a trip like this."

That's part of what enticed Koltai (A'76, F'78), who has fond memories of his days on the Hill, to pack his bags and head to Ghana with a group of students he describes as having "an incredible thirst for knowledge." His decision was also driven by his desire to learn more about Africa.

"When I went to Tufts, Africa and African studies were sort of not on the map, even though I was a history major," he says. "And when I went to Fletcher, I never once took a course about Africa, so I knew nothing about it. I have always been interested and always wanted to go."

He learned about the Ghana Gold Corporate Social Responsibility Tour, an annual trip offered through Tufts' Africa in the New World minor, when Robinson gave a presentation to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service Board of Advocates. In a pitch for funding from Tisch, the associate professor of political science invited Koltai and his fellow board members along on the trip. He accepted, personally covering his own expenses and some of the students' costs.

"I wanted to see a Tisch program in action," says Koltai. "And the idea of going with a major expert in Africa [Robinson]—someone who has spent her whole life studying it—was something that appealed to me."

In Ghana, Robinson wasn't the only one sharing her expertise. With his vast experience as an executive and an entrepreneur, and a background in international affairs and project financing, Koltai was also a valuable resource to the students. The founder of Event411, an online event planning company; co-founder of SES/Astra, the largest television satellite company in the world; and a former executive at Warner Brothers, Salomon Brothers and McKinsey & Company, Koltai says, "There were a lot of teachable moments."

Ghana Gold

"I spent time one-on-one with every student," recalls Koltai, who was a Fulbright Scholar in 1977 an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in 1985. "They would ask me questions: ‘How did you get from point A to point B in your life?' There were lots of life lessons."

While the students—a senior, a junior and four sophomores—may have been soaking up the insights Koltai had to offer, he was learning from them, too. According to Koltai, the students showed "an incredible thirst for knowledge." They posed thoughtful questions to the people they encountered at vastly different locations, including a gold mines, an artist's studio, a king's palace, a microfinance organization and one of the infamous "slave castles" from which hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped to the New World.

"I was incredibly impressed with the diligence, the seriousness with which everybody looked at what we were doing," says Koltai. "It really was a real-world practicum on what are the issues in a developing country."

But Koltai took away from the trip much more than just an education on Ghanaian issues and the economic and social impact of gold. That was simply "the coat rack on which much of the experience was rested," and that rich experience helped him see his alma mater in a new light.

"Tufts is having an effect on this country that is far greater than I ever thought was possible."

— Steven Koltai

"Tufts is having an effect on this country that is far greater than I ever thought was possible," he says, referring not just to the Ghana Gold study tour.

He points to the Tufts-in-Ghana study abroad program,. which enables students to spend a semester at the University of Ghana. According to Koltai, for every three Tufts students who have participated in the program, one Ghanaian has come to Tufts. Most have been junior faculty, he notes, and the impact in Ghana has been great.

"What you have at the University of Ghana, one of the top universities in sub-Saharan Africa, is a cadre of people who have a Tufts connection," he says. At the University of Ghana, the proud Tufts alumnus says, everyone has heard of Tufts.

Now back home, Koltai is on a mission to promote Tufts programs like Ghana Gold that unite alumni and current students.

"I think that this program not only should be continued and expanded, but I think that it should be a model for other programs," says Koltai. "It's unique."

Profile written by Meghan Mandeville, Web Communications

Slideshow photography by Kelsey Bell (A'10) and Marissa Maren (A'08)

Homepage photo by Marissa Maren (A'08)

This story originally ran on Mar. 24, 2008.