IT student from Ghana has relentless focus on certification goals
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Since its inception as a nation in 1787, the United States has been a magnet for people from all over the world, with more than 85 million strivers and seekers arriving just in the last 200 years. The best definition of immigrants I’ve ever heard came from Democratic congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California who described them as people with “enough get-up-and-go to get up and go.”
One of the newest “get up and goers” to arrive in America is 23-year-old Ibrahim Sackey of Ghana. A passionate and ambitious budding technologist, Ibrahim was sponsored by an “auntie” when, back in 2017, he and his mother left their homeland just a few degrees north of the equator to start a new life on the shores of Lake Erie in chilly Cleveland, Ohio.
Like most U.S. newcomers, Ibrahim was quick to appreciate the possibilities of his new country. “The biggest difference between Ghana and the U.S. is that there are so many opportunities here, especially in the tech industry,” he said. “Americans utilize technology everywhere — in healthcare, agriculture, transportation, in all fields — and they do it every day. We don’t have such in Ghana.”
The one thing Ibrahim has yet to grow comfortable with is the wintry Ohio climate. “I enjoy the States very much, but Cleveland gets too cold for me,” he said. “It does not snow in Ghana.”
Coming to the U.S. meant leaving family members behind back in Ghana. Ibrahim has two older sisters and a brother in Ghana and he thinks of them often. “I haven’t been back since I left and I miss my siblings very much,” he said.
Dedicated to his education
The primary reason Ibrahim hasn’t visited Ghana is because he is a very busy man presently enrolled full-time at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. At Cuyahoga, in addition to pursuing a dual associate’s degrees in Information Technology Networking Hardware and Networking Software, Ibrahim also works between 20 and 25 hours a week at the college’s Technology Learning Center.
Working at the center is a way for Ibrahim to help his mom with household expenses and probably also helps pay for his favorite pastime — he’s earning IT certifications like the supply of them could run out tomorrow. He currently holds 10 such credentials, from Microsoft, CompTIA, and TestOut. Not only that, but he earned all 10 in a single year.
That level of energy is no surprise to people who know him. When it comes to his education, Ibrahim is an eager learner and embraces hard work. One of his Cuyahoga instructors, Eugene Andres, said Ibrahim’s extraordinary ability to assimilate new technology is fueled by “grit” and “head-down hard work.”
Hard work and singular focus are also what enables Ibrahim to be on the dean’s list, with a 3.95 GPA, as well as have a seat in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. Additionally, he is a Mandel Scholar and serves as president of Cuyahoga’s Information Technology Career Advancement Club.
But wait! There’s more: The League for Innovation in community colleges selected Ibrahim to receive the Terry O’Bannon Student Technology Award in 2019. The national award honors three deserving students who have a special talent in technology, strong financial need, and a passion about moving toward a career in technology. Each winner receives a $2,500 scholarship to be used toward their educational expenses.
Role models in Ghana
Ibrahim recognizes that he is a product of those he emulates. He calls his father his hero, “Because he has always supported me, encouraged me to do my best and to never give up.”
Dad also gave Ibrahim his first exposure to computers. “My father worked for a publishing company and always had a computer at home,” Ibrahim explained. “I would play around with his computer whenever I had the opportunity.”
His father was also good with his hands, repairing home fixtures when needed and Ibrahim was always a willing helper. “My father fixed things around the house: doors, electrical sockets; anything that needed to be fixed,” said Ibrahim. “I would help out as much as I could, sometimes just holding the light, watching him work, and asking many questions.”
Another man who has had a lifelong positive impact on Ibrahim is a teacher he knew in Ghana, Ahumah Akrofi. Ibrahim describes Akrofi as being like a second father. “He gave me a lot of knowledge, but he was more than just my teacher, he was my coach, always available to help me and to discuss problems I was having.”
In addition to teaching science, English and computers, Akrofi helped Ibrahim develop a “get it done now” attitude. “Mr. Akrofi taught me to never procrastinate, saying that if you want to do something get it done now, because who knows what may happen tomorrow.”
Ibrahim learned this anti-procrastination lesson well. All through school, he has never waited to the last minute to do his school projects. “If a teacher posts a homework assignment, I start doing it immediately if I have time,” he said. “If I don’t have time to start the assignment, I’ll check it out quickly and start planning it in my head step-by-step.”
To this day, Ibrahim’s method is to right away do whatever he has to get done, and then relax after he’s finished. “It is the way I was brought up and taught to be.”
An early interest in technology
Thinking back to his childhood, Ibrahim remembers having an innate knack for technology. He was never afraid to poke around the inside of laptops, cell phones, and anything electrical. An inquisitive nature and self-taught skills made him something of a local tech icon among his neighbors — what began as a hobby soon became a small and profitable repair business.
“The whole community knew me,” he said. “If anyone mentioned a problem with their phone or computer, people would send them to me for fixing.”
This penchant for fixing things continues to help Ibrahim save money. He says the most awesome thing he has ever done was repairing the power steering in his 2008 Ford Escape hybrid. He took the car to several shops for repair quotes and was upset to at how expensive it would be: “The price for repairs made me angry, so I decided to fix it myself.”
After watching a few videos on replacing power steering sensors, Ibrahim ordered the part online, purchased the required tools, and replaced the sensor himself. Not only did he do the work himself, but he managed to do it despite freezing temperatures. “Very cold weather,” he said. “I jacked up the front of the vehicle, crawled under, and replaced calibrated everything. I saved a lot of money.”
As confident as Ibrahim is at repairing things, he is even better when preparing for IT certification exams. He says now that he didn’t know very much about certs or their advantages before enrolling at Cuyahoga: “I knew of them but didn’t know how they really solidify your knowledge and skills and make you stand out from other students.”
The drive to get certified
Ibrahim credits his hardware class instructor, Michael Silk, as being the “driving force” behind setting him on the path of certification. “He always talked about CompTIA A+ and how good it looked on a résumé,” said Ibrahim. “I wanted to apply for some entry-level jobs in IT and a lot of them were asking for certs that I realized I did not have.”
Once he understood the value of certifications, Ibrahim got busy earning them. All of his prep has been done outside of school and on his own. With sacrifice, hard work and focus, he masters certifications quickly. To date, the longest it has taken him, from start to finish, to complete a certification, is three months.
Ibrahim’s first step in prepping for a cert exam is to remove anything that might distract him from studying. He cuts back on time with friends and gives up watching TV and using social media, things which he said were not that difficult to do.
“It wasn’t hard for me to set these things aside because I know what I want to achieve,” he said. “I put those things on hold because I know I can always go back to them when I’m finished.”
Intense studying is also easier when you have friends who support your efforts. Ibrahim tells how his friends indirectly encourage and support him when working on a certification. “A friend will say that he wants to get this or that cert, but will not actually pursue them. I go and get it so that I can show them that it is very doable.”
He also tries to return the favor by becoming a source of motivation for his less dedicated friends. “One friend calls me a ‘studying machine,’ so I try to challenge myself and them to earn a certification. I’m a source of motivation for them.”
Ibrahim’s study habits enable him to typically complete a cert within one to two months, sometimes even faster. During the 2018 Christmas holiday break, while friends were partying and having fun, Ibrahim spent every free hour preparing for a Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) certification exam, which he passed.
Ibrahim also credits his cert success to relying only on TestOut courseware and materials: “I love their courses because they explain things in very simple English; I don’t need a dictionary to understand.”
When prepping for his three CompTIA certifications, Ibrahim ignored the recommendations of others to utilize a variety of study materials, relying solely TestOut courses. “On chat boards, others talk about having to use a number of sources, but I use only TestOut and I’ve never regretted it,” he said.
Of course, what one gets out of prep materials depends also on the effectiveness of one’s effort to master them, and Ibrahim is all about effective effort. “I stayed glued to the courses and make sure I go through every chapter and every practice question. TestOut’s practice questions really make sure you are ready for the certification exam.”
Ibrahim is also eager to compliment his other instructors, Eugene Andres and Dennis Shutway, and credits them with going above and beyond to help him learn and prepare for the IT job market. “My school has the best teachers,” he said. “If you show your commitment, that you are hungry for knowledge and willing to work hard, they will do all they can to help you.”
Little Free Library
IT professionals are often accused of being more interested in machines than in people. Not Ibrahim Sackey. He has a deep interest in helping others improve their lives and their environment. In addition to lauding his impressive IT skills, colleagues and friends describe Ibrahim as being humble, approachable, and invested in caring for others.
Anders said his student is a “man-for-others and a servant leader. He meets people where they are at and strives to lift them up.”
An episode from his life in Ghana illustrates Ibrahim’s desire to “lift others.” As a junior high school student, he read a paper about the threat social media posed to the reading habits of teens. Through additional research, he learned that excessive social media use caused many teens to not develop the skills to communicate clearly in face-to-face interactions.
Recognizing the positive correlation between literacy and greater speaking and listening skills, Ibrahim set out to help his peers. On his own initiative (and at his own expense), he gathered a few books and built a small shelf in his school to place the books on.
He labeled his creation, the “Little Free Library,” printed up flyers announcing the library, and went door-to-door among his neighbors inviting children and teens to “come borrow a book.”
The project at first seemed a failure. It was five weeks before his first patrons dropped by — a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old. Heartened by this small success, Ibrahim doubled his efforts to promote the library. By the end of summer, he had 15 regulars showing up in the late afternoon every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to read, borrow, and discuss books.
Before long, with the help of others, he gathered more books and expanded the library. To inspire the other students, Ibrahim began holding regular dictation sessions and awarded prizes to students who excelled in writing. Students were soon submitting new words for discussion that they had come across in their own reading.
At the six-month mark, Ibrahim undertook an unscientific survey, noting a marked increase in the literary capabilities of his fellow student patrons, and was delighted with the library’s impact. “By then, 85 percent of my regulars had become book lovers,” he explained. “And they preferred personal interactions with one another instead of virtual interactions.”
The students’ parents were appreciative of Ibrahim’s efforts and impressed with their children’s improvement in reading comprehension and speaking skills. Word spread and, before long, the Little Free Library morphed into a neighborhood-wide book club for people of all ages. In Ibrahim’s words, “What began as insignificant had gained prominence.”
Still focused on his goals
Ibrahim’s library project changed him. “It gave me confidence and assurance that one man, like one book, one pen, one child, or one teacher, can change the world.” Along with certifications, the lessons of Ibrahim’s youth and the influence of both his father and Akrofi have set him on a path to a rich and fulfilling life.
His short-term goals include completing a CompTIA Security+ certification this summer and a CCNA by the end of the year, and eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in Network Operations and Security through Western Governor’s University. His career goal is to be a network engineer and be the best at it.
Ibrahim’s advice to students contemplating getting a certification of their own is to realize that they can do it. “Regardless of one’s abilities, interests and brain power, you can achieve anything you perceive. All you need is dedication, commitment, hard work, and most importantly self-discipline. Some people wish to get things done, others want to get it done and some get it done. Be a person who gets it done.”
People often ask Ibrahim why he works so hard. His explanation is filled with humility, confidence and inspiration. “It all bounces back to how I grew up and my training in school. “My father and my teacher both taught me to never give up; that anything is possible if you are determined and willing to put in the hard work.”
An additional piece of advice Mr. Akrofi imparted back in Ghana sums up how Ibrahim continues to approach life in this land filled with opportunities: “Work in silence and let your success speak for you.” That’s exactly what Ibrahim Sackey is doing.