Margaret Appiadu Antwi remembers playing in piles of trash and drinking dirty water during her childhood. Growing up in the poor African nation of Ghana, the sanitary conditions were often fodder for a public health official’s nightmare.
But her life changed dramatically at the age of 12, when she and her family moved to America – first to the Bronx and then to New Haven.
“In Africa, when you’re told you’re going to see America it’s like going to see heaven,” said Antwi. “Coming to America from a Third World country and not having anything was a bit overwhelming for me and my sister, but it was also new and exciting.”
Simple things that most Americans take for granted – such as indoor plumbing – shocked Antwi. Indeed, the quality of life for her, as well as her mother and sister, had improved significantly. But like most immigrants, the change also spurred new challenges.
Although she and her sister learned English from their mother while still in Ghana, their foundation in the language was lacking compared with American-born children. And the education system in Ghana was not as advanced as in the United States. “Class was difficult, and kids were cruel. We were picked on for our accents.”
But Antwi overcame her language barriers and education challenges to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in public health.
Although school was tough in her younger days, Antwi kept herself busy and helped her mother pay bills beginning at the age of 14, when she started working as a home health aide.
Antwi’s mother worked multiple jobs to provide for and ensure the safety of her children. “She always made sure we didn’t live in a bad area of the Bronx,” Antwi said. “We went to school in Riverdale, and there was no violence.”
Since they lived in an expensive part of town, Antwi said they had to make some sacrifices. “We had a one-bedroom apartment,” she said, “It was me, my mom and my sister, and we all slept on the same bed.”
After high school, Antwi attended Staten Island College to study nursing. The college didn’t have dorms, so Antwi had to live at home and commute six hours a day to class, which quickly began to wear on her.
She transferred to Southern, where she now lives on campus and works at the Institute of Professional Practice in North Haven. After taking a class with Dr. Marian Evans, Antwi switched her major from nursing to public health. “Dr. Evans just completely inspired and motivated me to pursue public health,” she said.
When she moved to the United States, Antwi said she was shocked at the huge differences in basic hygiene, like simply flushing toilets. “That all helped me to figure out what I wanted to do, and when I fell into the class with Dr. Evans it was like a perfect correlation to my life,” she said.
She said the department is very student-oriented, and three teachers have gone above and beyond to support her: Evans, John Nwangwu and Sandra Bulmer. “Those three have changed my life and have been my inspiration,” Antwi said.
Recently, Antwi served as an intern with Bulmer at the Student Health and Wellness Center. With guidance from Bulmer, she became a member of the Society for Public Health Education and was chosen for the 21st Century Scholarship, which enabled her to attend the 2014 Health Education Advocacy Summit, an educational trip to Washington, D.C.
Antwi said she misses her extended family back in Ghana, but living in America has made her independent and strong. “My whole life has been challenging,” she said, “but if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want.”
After graduation, Antwi said she plans to immediately start working in the field, and then she, her mother and sister will be looking to buy their first house. She’d also like to obtain her master’s degree and work for the World Health Organization.
“I want to travel and go to Third World countries to educate people on basic health needs – that’s my dream,” Antwi said.