For Yale Junior, finding an opportunity in difficult situations brings success
When he finished high school in Ghana, at an age when students all over the world dream of attending school like Yale, Obed Gyedu-Larbi never even thought of such thoughts.
At the time he was living with his mother, a single woman who worked as a grocer who couldn’t afford to send him to college. Instead, Gyedu-Larbi took a seven-day-week job in the service of his wealthy uncle’s family, which he would keep for the next several years. On busy days, the workday started at 5 a.m. and ended around midnight, and whether he was healthy or not, his would include cleaning, cooking, shopping, and landscaping, among other things.
It was a tough time. Gyedu-Larbi, however, was grateful for the skills he had acquired, especially when his uncle taught him how to manage the financial accounts of his real estate business. He remembered that no matter the challenges of the moment, there was always something to strive for.
And he knew that he still wanted to get a higher education – even if that dream paused. He could not have foreseen that one day he would be a student at Yale College, where he is now studying political science and pursuing a career in finance or wealth management.
Nor could he imagine the winding path that would lead him here.
“In every situation I find myself in, I try to balance the good and bad, âsaid Gyedu-Larbi, who is now a Yale College Junior on Yale’s Eli Whitney Student Program for non-traditional students. âI focus on the opportunity and tell myself that whatever situation I find myself in will not be there forever. And there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. “
Sometimes a tough life and a lucky lottery win
Gyedu-Larbi spent his early childhood in a rural village in southeast Ghana before moving to the capital Accra with his mother and siblings. Although his life was mostly a happy one, he also remembers times when he and his siblings slept on bare ground with relatives, even brief times when they were homeless.
When Gyedu-Larbi got the opportunity to work for his uncle after graduating from high school, he was grateful for the opportunity despite the busy schedule. After saving some money, he eventually quit the job and became an accountant with a young real estate company in Accra. Then, in 2014, he was selected in the Diversity Visa Program, an annual US government lottery that gives non-citizens from select countries the opportunity to apply and work as permanent residents in the country. It was his third attempt at the lottery, and he used some of the money he had saved to obtain his birth certificate, passport, and other documents he needed to enter the United States.
“After my Visa interview, I was so excited to be selected that I happily walked home from the US embassy for the hour and a half instead of taking a cab just to speak to myself, âhe recalls.
Through connections in his church in Ghana, Gyedu-Larbi found a host in America who, when he arrived in 2015, provided him with free food and accommodation for two months so that he could save for his own space. He quickly took a job as a clerk in a clothing store in the Bronx and was able to rent his own apartment within a few months. He later became a full-time bag handler for Greyhound at the Port Authority Terminal.
But his eyes were still on returning to school. And after two years, in 2017, Gyedu-Larbi enrolled at the Bronx Community College-City University of New York (BCC).
At BCC, he served in student administration, became a peer mentor, and was inducted into the Kaplan Education Foundation’s rigorous leadership program for underserved, high performing students that prepares them for transfer to a four-year college.
With no family members around to celebrate his first birthday in the United States, Gyedu-Larbi decided instead to celebrate the day by buying and distributing food to the homeless in the Bronx, something he has been doing since arriving in New York had done regularly.
“The first time I went to America to work for Greyhound in Times Square, I saw homeless people out in the cold and snow, very close to the world’s largest McDonald’s, âhe recalls. âI was amazed at this, so I started giving them food when I could. On my birthday, I gave McDonald’s food to the homeless along Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street. “
These experiences led him to do more to help those in need. While enrolled at BCC, Gyedu-Larbi founded Project Feed NYC, a nonprofit that distributes food and warm clothing to the homeless. He and a classmate would spend most of the summer walking a shopping cart down Fordham Road in the Bronx, distributing essentials and often spending hundreds of dollars of his own money on groceries, hand warmers, and winter jackets. Meanwhile, he continued to work at Greyhound and managed to save enough to buy a cooperative in the Bronx, where he still resides during his monthly trips to town and where he continues to distribute groceries to the homeless.
“Sometimes it was stressful and I was very tired, âhe said of those days running a non-profit organization, working and studying at Greyhound. âBut like with my uncle, I had my vision of the future in mind.
“For me it was important not only to work hard for myself, but also to look after the well-being of others, including the less privileged. My mother always taught me to remember to give alms to the poor. “
Rhoda Tamakloe, an advisor to the Kaplan Education Foundation while Gyedu-Larbi was at BCC, said his commitment to social justice, equity, and equality – as well as resilience, integrity, academic success, and leadership potential – distinguishes him and others as a Kaplan scholar.
“Obed stands out as one of the top 1% of the students I’ve worked with over the past decade, âsaid Tamakloe. âAs a modest student, Obed worked hard to make sure he shared the fruits of his labor with the most vulnerable in his community. He has achieved great success by never giving up his beliefs and securing every resource with the intent of giving them back to those who have supported him and passing them on for future generations. “
The road leads to Yale
Two years ago, during his final semester at BCC, Gyedu-Larbi applied to a long list of colleges, including several Ivy League institutions. He thought he was through the grueling and stressful application process when another Kaplan Educational Foundation advisor told him about Yales Eli Whitney Student Program.
“I really didn’t want to apply to another school! âSaid Gyedu-Larbi. “But at the last minute I filled out an application at Yale without really thinking I’d end up here.”
A few visits to the university, where he said he was always warmly received, helped Yale get into the race. The generous financial support he received made him eligible for participation. “As a student without family support, especially financial ones, I quickly welcomed Yale’s offer with great joy,” said Gyedu-Larbi.
Gyedu-Larbi took courses in economics, finance, and accounting at Yale College in preparation for his next goal: creating a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people in low-income communities gain financial literacy.
“This dream started for me in Ghana, where I saw my mother manage a fund for a small group of women, like a private bank (called susu) but never make a profit. She could have been a hedge fund manager if she had been better prepared! âHe said with a smile.
“I’ve seen relatives who were once rich become poor and wealthy black celebrities who squandered their fortunes, âGyedu-Larbi continued. “How does it work? At Yale, I take courses on people’s attitudes and behaviors, government policies, the economy, and other factors that affect wealth management and longevity and accumulation. “
Last summer, Gyedu-Larbi gained experience in finance and accounting as an intern at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. He plans to work in the fixed income division of Morgan Stanley in New York City for the next summer.
“I want to use what I am learning to provide financial literacy and management to the communities I grew up in – whether in Ghana, the Bronx, or even elsewhere like Louisiana, “he said. “I think I have to be a good role model for that.”
At Yale, Gyedu-Larbi continues his service for others as treasurer of the Dwight Hall-affiliated Harbor Scholars Program, a scholarship and advocacy organization for students in Yale and across Connecticut who do not have traditional family support systems. He is also part of the finance team of the youth mentoring program Leadership, Education & Athletics in Partnership (LEAP).
“From day one, Obed was recognized for his enthusiasm for Yale, appreciation for a humanities education, and deep commitment to improving the lives of others, âsaid Risa Sodi, assistant dean of academic affairs and director of advisory and special programs at the Yale College Dean’s Office. âAlthough he himself lived in difficult circumstances, he still focused on helping those in need.
“Few will be aware of the sacrifices Obed has made since coming to the United States alone as a young adult, a future date, âSodi added. “I find his work ethic and heart amazing and humiliating, and I am grateful that this remarkable person is part of our Eli Whitney and Yale community.”
Gyedu-Larbi hopes to one day buy a house so that he can invite his mother and other family members to the United States. Meanwhile, his fellow students in the Eli Whitney student program and other Yale friends and partners, as well as other members of a local branch of the Qodesh Family Church, serve as “family” outside of his native Ghana.
“I think my faith, along with hard work and good luck, got me where I am today, âhe said.