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Midwestern College President Links Nigerian Roots, US Values, World Students

FILE - Benjamin Ola Akande is president of Westminster College in Missouri.

Benjamin Ola Akande remembers the exact date when he left his Nigerian homeland for America.

"I came to the U.S. on August 24, 1979,” he said. “I remember it was a Boeing 747 flight that came from Lagos into JFK airport.

“As the plane approached the tarmac and the pilot comes on and tells us we were landing at John F. Kennedy airport, pictures sort of tumbled through my head, and what was interesting was that I began to hum the song by Frank Sinatra, ‘New York, New York.’ I was thinking I was finally here; I was finally here."

In the unique experience of landing and going through customs, he says, all the pictures of all the movies and the shows he'd seen about America came to life.

Fast forward to 36 years later: Akande becomes the 21st president of Westminster College in the Midwestern state of Missouri. He is the first African-American and Nigeria-born person to lead a liberal arts and sciences college in America.

Benjamin Ola Akande discusses student results, Westminster's history:

Benjamin Ola Akande, What Makes Westminster Great
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Akande says he is honored to have the opportunity to serve at a historic school, where Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill, gave his "Iron Curtain" speech nearly 70 years ago. It's a place, he says, that's been focused on developing not just American leaders, but global ones.

"A great percentage of our students are international students who come from 80 different countries,” he said, “and we make a concerted effort to recruit them and prepare them for leadership in their respective countries. That was an attraction to me.”

Listen as Benjamin Ola Akande talks about cultivating inclusiveness:

Benjamin Ola Akande, and cultivating inclusiveness; Courtesy of Westminster College
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Akande points out the challenge for him has been "trying to know this place and to really go out and meet Americans and meet them where they are and not pass any judgment calls."

Akande spent a lot of time in the Southwestern states of Texas and Oklahoma and what he called "the conservative bed" of the United States.

"I learned a lot about value systems and how they work,” he said. “About being open, vulnerable and not allowing anybody to define your reality. Staying grounded with who you are and the values that came with how you were raised. That's the conflicting aspect of being in this country."

Akande earned a degree in business administration at Wayland Baptist University in Texas and a doctorate in economics from the University of Oklahoma, then completed his post-doctoral studies at Harvard and Oxford universities.

Benjamin Ola Akande discusses dreams coming true:

Benjamin Ola Akande, dreams coming true; Courtesy of Westminster College
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​Akande says he's still trying to be grounded in his Nigerian upbringing.

He returns often, and "when I go home, I go home,” he says. “I mean, I am there. I put on the outfits; I put on my hat. I slip into my flip-flops. I walk the neighborhood. I will seek out my friends, the folks I grew up with. And when I am there with them, I am not the president of an institution. I am that good old boy with whom they grew up."

And when he comes back to the U.S., "I feel rejuvenated,” Akande said. “It gives me the kind of strength and courage to keep on keeping on."

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office.