It was an April morning in the midst of a winter that seemed like it wouldn’t end, and Augustina Kwesie Osabutey was tired, discouraged and almost out of money.
Osabutey, 26, had beaten long odds to make it from what she calls a “less privileged” background in the coastal town of Axim, Ghana, to the environmental engineering master’s program at Montana Tech, but she wasn’t sure how she would be able to keep going .
“That morning, I was very depressed,” Osabutey says. “I was tired. I was missing home. I was just in my office, sitting there, and I called my kid brother.”
It was then — while confiding in her brother from half a world away — that an email popped into her inbox, telling her she had been awarded a $10,500 International Peace Scholarship from the Philanthropic Educational Organization. It was then that she knew she could keep going for another year and complete her degree.
She cried then, and Osabutey tears up talking about it on a recent morning: “I was very happy and very thankful.”
With the scholarship, Osabutey will be able to continue a journey that began some 16 years ago, when she was 10 years old and her mother took her on a trip from her hometown, where she says opportunities are few, to Ghana’s capital city, Accra, where the world first opened up to her.
In Accra, she encountered members of the national parliament, who had previously seemed like characters on TV.
“When I used to see these people on television, I didn’t think they were real,” Osabutey says. “They were just images — that is what I thought at the age of 10. So I was motivated seeing them, especially the women amongst them.”
She also met a cousin and other children her age in Accra and noted the “vast difference between us, as in knowledge and how she talks.”
“I felt like we were of the same age, and they were way ahead of me,” Osabutey says.
Back in Axim, she thought, “I have to try to go higher in life and then help those in Axim — the teenagers in Axim — also get these opportunities. … And this stayed with me, and it also motivated me to move higher in my education.”
That meant going to college. But that was difficult to do. To raise money to pay university application fees, she baked and sold pastries on the streets of Axim. To attend school, she relied on the aid of a cousin who was a Catholic priest.
As she considered what she wanted to study, Osabutey says she was attracted to the mining industry and to mechanical engineering, in particular, not because it seemed accessible — but because it didn’t. Few women work in these fields in Ghana, Osabutey says, and she wanted to demonstrate that they can: “I always want to challenge people, like, yeah, women can do this.”
So she did.
First, she earned her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Mines and Technology in Tarkwa, Ghana. Then Osabutey spent a year working for a gold mine in Ghana as part of an obligatory year of national service. Afterward, she worked for a contractor that provided mining equipment and services.
Then, in late 2016, she acted on her longstanding dream of helping other young people like her and started a non-profit called the Teen Leadership and Entrepreneurial Development Foundation, which aims to help identify deficiencies in local Axim schools and to help students advance their educational and career goals. According to Osabutey, the foundation’s aims to intervene in the lives of teenagers, who she says are key to helping “their country develop.”
While working with her non-profit, Osabutey also applied to graduate schools around the world — including Montana Tech, which she heard about from a fellow Ghanaian who’d studied engineering in the United States and which she chose to attend after receiving the funding she needed.
When she arrived in Butte to start school last August, Osabutey says it wasn’t what she expected. She’d been to the United States twice before, to take part in Model United Nations events in Boston and New York, and she “thought it was going to be the same here.” Instead, it was a town about the size of Axim.
“But I came here to study,” Osabutey says. “I know what brought me here.”
Despite her focus on her long-term educational and professional goals, Osabutey made a significant switch when she arrived at Butte. Though she had been accepted into the mechanical engineering master’s program, she’d had a change of heart between applying and arriving.
“Looking around me in Ghana, we have a lot of pollution and degradation (from mining),” she says. “Illegal mining, especially, is a very big problem in Ghana. This illegal mining pollutes the water bodies in Ghana and then degrades the land.”
Concerned about these issues, Osabutey asked to switch from mechanical engineering to environmental engineering at Tech. Her appeal was granted, and she is now pursuing both her masters of science in environmental engineering and a certificate in restoration.
Her goal is to return to Ghana, continue to work with her non-profit, research mine pollution, advocate for environmental reforms and become a professor of engineering.
“Being a professor, my main motive is to encourage women to also go into engineering,” she says. “Some women are very brilliant and can help the country, if given the opportunity. But they have to be given the opportunity, and they need to help to do that.”
While the International Peace Scholarship is providing that kind of help to her, Sonya Rosenthal said Osabutey “put the hard work in” to complete the demanding application it required.
And Rosenthaal, an adjunct professor of civil engineering who helped bring the scholarship to Osabutey’s attention, says she is highly deserving of the award.
“The intent of the scholarship is to empower women to go back to their home country and make improvements to their country,” Rosenthal says. “Augustina has amazing personal drive and passion for women but also for her country and for environmental standards. And I think what we’ve seen with Augustina reaching these early goals, you know that she’s going to make this stuff happen. Augustina’s probably going to get a Nobel environment peace prize or something like that, just because of the passion and will to make this happen.”
In the meantime, though, Osabutey is using her recent infusion of funding to keep moving steadily forward toward her more immediate goal of earning her masters degree and a certificate in restoration.
To that end, she could be found in a greenhouse on Tech’s campus on a recent morning, removing seedlings from soil as part of a work she’s doing this summer as a graduate research assistant for Tech Assistant Professor Robert Pal.
Pal says Augustina’s experience and insight add to the school’s restoration program — and he’s optimistic that what she learns in Butte will prove useful when she returns to Ghana.
“Augustina, with her special education, hopefully can take back a lot of good things to her country to make restoration better, after all the mining,” Pal says.