On her first trip from Ghana to Columbus, Ohio, Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, working today as residence director at Bard College-Simon's Rock, had never known such cold or seen snow. Raised in a suburb of Accra -- lush, green, warm year round, with yards full of fruit trees -- she had never been to America.
"Big trees were bowed down with ice," she said. "And Columbus was so different in so many ways -- organized, with street names, and so many white people! At home, churches are everywhere, right next to houses, and worship is active -- everyone singing, dancing, hugging, shouting and praying together."
She came to the U.S. to pursue education.
"By the time I was 18," she said, "I understood that education was what gave people access to money, power and control. At Ohio Dominican College, I took human resource courses. But I'd always loved writing and ended up majoring in English."
Yomekpe grew up an ardent, literal believer in the Roman Catholic faith. After college, she enrolled in a master's program in theology at the University of Dayton and began working in Student Affairs as graduate assistant in campus ministry during her first year there. But her journey took a new turn.
"I believed some texts were sacred, written by God, and not to be questioned. And I was a Bible Quiz champion -- even went to national competitions," she said. "We were looking at faith through many lenses. There were gospels I'd never known about, which had been excluded from the Bible. It was unbalancing. I decided to leave graduate school."
A professor who knew her convinced Yomekpe to continue her studies. She completed her English master's degree with an emphasis on postcolonial and adolescent literature, studying in Morocco for a semester. And as assistant to the English department chair, she attended an international writer's conference in Egypt, where she met and heard powerful voices of African women writers.
"Though I did not yet feel I was a writer," she said, "I started believing I could be part of something important -- something bigger than myself."
Student Affairs took her next to work as the first black rector at the University of Notre Dame. It was gratifying to deliver a range of important supports, advocacy and counseling services for all the students, she said, and she started new programs, providing health information to sexually active young people, organizing an African dance group and offering Bible study for gay and lesbian students who were quietly struggling to align belief in the Bible with their 21st-century identities.
She had found her calling: To help young people discover themselves safely while they learn about the world and move toward adulthood.
From Indiana she journeyed west to complete a master's degree at the Graduate Theological Union in pastoral counseling and psychology, with certificates in women's and LGBT studies, before beginning another master's program for an MFA in writing at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Her thesis is a memoir, "The Coal Pot: One African Woman's Journey to Self-Discovery."
When a Student Affairs opportunity at Bard College Simon's Rock came along, she traveled east. Here, in addition to counseling and advocacy, she has taught African dance and cooking and started a writing group for girls who, like her, are finding their own authentic, integrative voices. For students of color, she said, Great Barrington is conspicuously white.
"Light-skinned or bi-racial people seem more easily accepted around here, but there aren't many of us dark ones," she said. "People usually stare, and it can feel lonely: We wave when we see each other. In Ghana, I never thought about being black -- only about the reality of being a woman in a world where men have power and control. A special feature of my calling is for students of color to know that people who look like them and me can accomplish, succeed and overcome any obstacle."
Now securely identifying herself as a writer -- memoirist, essayist and writer of social commentary -- she has a blog, "Musings of an African Woman" (ewurabaempe.wordpress.com). She is working in a "secular setting," enjoying the challenge of developing non-religious ways to supporting students' spiritual growth.
"In many ways this job is what I dreamed of doing when I began studying theology," she said, "because it means working in a communal setting like a village where, together, we are all helping to raise children as responsible adults who find ways to do what they themselves are called to do."