From Rural Ghana to Harvard: A Young Man’s Rise from Obscurity to the World’s Best University


Fueled by means inexplicable to him, MacLean Sarbah, known affectionately as Mac, was driven to overcome poverty, get an education, then use what he learned to give back to his community. Little did he know that his path would lead him to Columbia University, the University of Cambridge and Harvard University.

His journey did not come without trials and turbulence along the way, though. “It was hard,” he told Joy News in an interview. Trying to study each day without electricity caused “smoke from the kerosene lantern to make my eyes teary.”

Mac is one of eight children who was born and raised in Yeji, a rural town in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region to Tongu immigrant parents from Mepe-Battor in the Volta region. He shared a home about the size of a small provision shop with seven other family members. Growing up, his days consisted of early morning wake up calls to fetch heavy loads of water at the Volta Lake, about several kilometres away. When he returned home – about 90 minutes later – it would be time to prepare for school where he would stay long after his schoolmates left for the day.

Mac with four of his seven siblings in Accra.

“My father was a disciplinarian,” said Mac, who did not have a mother figure in his life. “My father would sit in his armchair and watch me study from seven to 10 PM. Then I would wake up the next morning and do it all over again.”

That was until junior high school when his father suffered a severe stroke and had to leave Yeji for medical treatment. Mac had to resort to a school so inadequate, he didn’t pick up much academic knowledge. Determined not to become a product of his environment, he continued at Adidome day Senior High School and made the bold decision to repeat his first year because “I wanted to learn from the beginning,” he said. “I would walk several miles to and from school every day, worked to save money, bought books and studied.” He credits one of his teachers and mentor, Mr. Kola Ashafa, who he says dedicated himself to teach almost every subject for the betterment of his students.

The saying “hard work pays off” rang true for the young scholar when he won the North Tongu District Best Student Award and became one of a select few to pass senior high school exams. “My clothes were so torn and my shoes were so worn that I had to borrow some from my friend just to attend the ceremony.”

In 2002, the University of Ghana called. He accepted their admission offer and four years later, he graduated earning a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences with First Class Honors. “I had no place to sleep during my first years so I slept on the floor on a thin mattress in an extended family member’s room in Akuafo Hall,” he recalls. “Life at the university was tough. Sometimes, I didn’t have money for food, but I never gave up.”

Mac with his family at his graduation at the University of Ghana.

Mac’s life took an unexpected turn of events when he won the lottery to live in the U.S. But while abroad, he “had to start all over again” as a cart pusher at a bus terminal in Boston. He shared a tiny room in a dirty, bug-infested apartment with other immigrants.

“My sister visited me and was sad to see these little creatures suck the blood out of me. It wasn’t a smooth transition. It was cold. I was on my own. I was depressed, and I would often burst into tears.”

That was until he applied for a Master’s degree at Columbia University, one of the country’s most highly-selective universities. He was admitted into the school in 2010 where he received a Master of Arts in Social-Organizational Psychology and an Advanced Graduate Certificate in Cooperation and Conflict Resolution in 2012.

Mac with his brother Reagan (left) and sister Stephanie at his graduation at Columbia University.

That same year, he applied to the University of Cambridge and was accepted as a candidate for a Master of Philosophy in Innovation, Strategy and Organization at the Cambridge Judge Business School. He successfully completed the program and graduated in 2013.

Mac at St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. 

“I always knew he would do well because he was always so hardworking,” said Stephanie Yayra Sarbah Meek, his older sister who still recalls her brother building toy cars and selling to his childhood friends. “It’s no surprise that he has gotten to where he is.”

The light at the end of a very dark and lonely road began to dim when he lost his father in 2016, one of his biggest supporters.

Mac’s father, John Kwame Mensah Sarbah.

“I wish my father was alive to see what I plan to achieve. I wish he was alive to enjoy the fruits of his labor,” Mac said.

Rather than buckle down from the death of his closest ally, he grew even more resolute to succeed and attended an open house at Harvard University. He recalls professors telling him he belonged at the Institution after hearing his story.

“I applied and got accepted.”

Mac on campus at Harvard University.

Mac is expected to graduate with a Master in Design Studies in Risk and Resilience in May 2019. His goal is to apply his knowledge in public policy, leadership and work in a social impact role that will allow him to impact the poor and underserved in Ghana and other developing countries.

“At the moment I am worried about youth unemployment in Ghana and Africa, so I’ve spent a lot of time investing in that. The future looks bleak and apocalyptic for Africa’s youth. I want to help solve this problem. I want to serve poor, underprivileged and underserved.”

Drawing from his passion in youth development, he dreams about creating an education scholarship fund for Tongu and Ghanaian youth in an attempt to give back to those in circumstances similar to his own while growing up.

His number piece of advice for young people who desire to succeed? “No matter how hard the circumstances, you must have faith. Never give up,” he said. “Put in the hard work and be determined that something will happen,” adding that “there will be some people who will ridicule you. They will try to put you down. They will tell you can’t achieve your dreams, but you must have an incredible belief in yourself. I attribute all of it to God.”

Follow Mac Sarbah’s journey on his social media platforms: FacebookTwitter and 

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