Mercy Amankwah

Mercy Amankwah is an international graduate student from Ghana who came to Case Western Reserve University to earn a PhD in applied mathematics. She shares why's glad she chose to study at Case Western Reserve, what her experience has been like during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how learning in another country will help advance her career plans. 

How did you decide to study at Case Western Reserve?

I have this to-do list for my life and getting my PhD in the U.S. is one of the items on my list. My checklist for selecting schools to apply to was centered on provision of full funding from the school and research of the faculty.  CWRU was on the list of schools I applied to because I liked the research the professors in the Applied Mathematics department are engaged in.  It’s a little bit interesting because Case was one of the last schools to send me an acceptance letter.  I had already accepted a PhD from another school and was making plans on moving there when I got accepted here.  Of course, I chose Case because aside from the research and funding, my cousin and his family live in Ohio, so I get to be close to family.  I must say I’m very happy I chose to study here because I’ve come to realize it’s not just the research but the teacher-student relationship is heartwarming. 

What is your favorite thing about studying at Case Western Reserve so far?

I guess I just gave an opening to this question in my previous response.  The effort of some professors if not all to make students comfortable is a winner for me.  One professor in my department has been extremely nice.  She’s like my academic mum (I’ve not told her though). She scolds me when I need to be scolded but more importantly during the short period I’ve been here, she has not only shown interest in my success as a PhD student but she actually cares about how I’m coping being away from my immediate family. I was very much touched by a gesture from her when this pandemic started. She actually sewed a mask for me and she still checks up on me every now and then to see how I’m coping. 

What obstacles did you think you would encounter when you were planning to study in the U.S.?  If you did encounter them, how did you overcome those obstacles?

I am very particular about my faith in Jesus. Everyone has their own way of maintaining their balance. Most people use meditation.  I’ll say my form of meditation or what really gives me peace is knowing that Jesus is with me and my confidence that he’s got my back (Disclaimer: Most people don’t understand it until they experience it) no matter what I go through. A major part of what shaped this faith is my upbringing and the community I had back in Ghana.  I knew leaving that community was leaving my comfort zone as it would be difficult to warm up to new people and join such communities here.  Long story short - On my first day at Case, I joined in an event organized by one of the campus groups called International Student Fellowship where I met some wonderful people.  I now have that kind of community I had at home. I’m very happy about that. 

How has your learning experience at Case Western Reserve been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Fortunately, I didn’t have all my classes being solely remote.  I could choose to go in-person or join most of my classes over zoom.  Last semester for instance, I registered for an independent study course and I realized that my presentations and discussions with my professors were very productive as we were all able to express ourselves, walk up to the board and nurture ideas that came up during those discussions. Honestly, those moments were very exciting for me and that is how I envision my life as a PhD student and a researcher.  I don’t think I would have enjoyed and learnt so much from the discussions if my independent study course meetings were held remotely.  I’m grateful my professors embraced the idea of safe in-person discussion. For the record, we were only three in a big classroom and all safety precautions were taken so I was not worried about contributing to the spread of COVID-19 virus.  Interestingly, the research topic for my study was on Investigating the Basic Reproductive Number (Ro, pronounced R-not) for the COVID-19 infection through the Next Generation Matrix.  It’s sad that this pandemic interrupted a lot of things but on the bright side for me I got the opportunity to watch video recordings of my lectures more than once. However, I really hope this pandemic is over soon so the world can get close to normal again. 

How have you adapted to this major change in your student experience and what have you learned from it?

First, the major change being moving halfway across the world to study in a totally different culture and environment.  I must say this experience has made me more resilient and tactical.  In my first year here at CWRU, I was overwhelmed with homework from every class as well as submission deadlines.  In my college back at home, I didn’t have to submit a lot of homework as I’m doing now. The numerous homework ceased when I finished high school so picking up the habit of juggling homework from every class I take was a bit challenging.  I had to change my learning strategies and actually allot time on my calendar for homework separate from study time.  Also, there are certain things I'm expected to know when I actually have no idea about so I’ve developed the habit of jotting such things down and looking them up after class.  Sometimes, some examples that are cited in class just did not make sense to me due to cultural differences so I either jot them down or ask the professors and some of my colleagues if possible.  Through this experience, I have learned that scheduling really helps. Allocating time for all the necessary tasks I need to accomplish daily, weekly etc., keeps you on top of things. 

What are your career plans, and how do you think living and studying in another country will help you in your career?

I plan on being a researcher and then becoming a full professor.  Living here gives me the opportunity to do internships in places like the national laboratories which have highly skilled research personnel and powerful research tools. This summer I’ll get to do an internship with Berkeley National Lab hence I’ll be privileged to work under the mentorship of seasoned researchers using cutting edge technology. Also, I get to easily go to many conferences and meet most of the people whose work I’ve read about.  I met one professor from Emory university (whose research I had been following since I was in Ghana) at the SIAM-Computational Science and Engineering 2019 Conference and we met again in a summer school where he was one of the instructors. During these periods, I learnt a lot from him and made some tweaks to how I’m approaching my research career. This kind of networking has given me a rich perspective as I get to draw from interactions I made in Ghana and here in the U.S. 

What advice would you give to other international students considering studying at Case Western Reserve?

You are on the right track if you are considering studying here.  Put in the hard work and if you can get funding push till you get it.  Once you get here, be open minded and embrace the different cultures because there are people from all over the world in this community who are also interested in learning something from your culture.  You’ll be amazed how much you can learn from a 30 minute conversation with someone from a different part of the world.  Most importantly, be prepared to burn the midnight oil and do a lot of homework even in graduate school. It pays off in the end.  One other important thing, “Keep a close relationship with the Office of International Student Services as they are extremely helpful in navigating through things here at Case.”