Ahmed Agyeman is living his American Dream and works to help others achieve theirs.
In June, the Ghana native was chosen to lead the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Urban Campus where he continues to do what he does best: Make Iowa better every day.
The center is a partnership between the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, The Directors Council, and DMACC to help working families with workforce development and employment opportunities.
This latest position is one of many Agyeman has held at DMACC, where he began his educational journey as an 18-year-old immigrant.
“As an immigrant, I didn’t come here asking for this great country to take care of me. Like many immigrants and refugees, I wake up in the morning to go to work,” he said. “For many, the process of coming to this country, it’s not easy at all; many people pay their life savings to come here, and others lose their lives to come here. So for those that are able to come here, there’s a lot of stress and pressure to not make this opportunity go by.”
Agyeman moved to the United States in January 1993 following his parents and younger brother. His parents had come to study at Iowa State University in Ames. Before his arrival, Agyeman lived with his maternal grandparents in Ghana for 12 years until he finished high school.
“Moving to this country to live with my parents as a teenager was a very difficult process to adjust not only culturally but to my own family,” Agyeman said.
Although he comes from a family of civil servants and educators, Agyeman thought he wasn’t prepared to go to college in this country, so he decided to work at a meat-packing plant in Ames. Working there allowed him to meet other immigrants and refugees, many of them older people with kids his age. They all advised him to continue his education, and that made a big difference for him.
“When I finally decided to enroll in college, I remember staying in the parking lot for about 45 minutes because I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the building or not,” Agyeman said.
As Agyeman sat in the car, a professor approached him and told him to go inside and register. He did as instructed and walked out officially enrolled at DMACC. That wasn’t a stand-alone experience for him at the school. Agyeman’s teachers continued to encourage and support him and it made a big impact on what he wanted to do in the future.
“I am passionate about being part of someone’s initial experience to college or a workforce training,” Agyeman said. “I feel so blessed because I am part of that experience, I get goosebumps when I talk about it because somebody did that for me.”
After earning his associates’ degree, Agyeman followed in his parents’ footsteps and transferred to Iowa State where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1997. Following graduation, Agyeman moved to Rochester, Minnesota, where he landed a position as a family services coordinator for Olmsted County. He worked as an advocate for immigrants and refugees, mostly from Southeast Asia and Africa.
Driven by the desire to grow as a professional, Agyeman returned to his alma mater where he earned a master’s in educational leadership and a doctorate of philosophy in educational leadership.
“The only way I could be at the table and lead and contribute meaningfully to policy decisions that impacted our community was to continue learning,” he said. “The more I learned, the more I found the need to keep going.”
After bouncing around higher education jobs in Central Iowa, he came back home to DMACC in 2004 to be an associate director of program development.
In 2019, he became DMACC’s director of community and global engagement. In that job, he worked on recruiting and retaining underrepresented students, establishing campus-wide diversity training programs, and more.
For students who come from underserved communities, the college experience differs from that of traditional students. There are gaps in financial information and many other areas that would help students further their education and training.
Being able to help immigrant communities and other underserved groups is why Agyeman decided to work at DMACC. He knows how hard the journey to American can be and how valuable education can be in helping people acclimate and advance.
“Education builds community,” Agyeman said. “For one, educational institutions are among the spaces that our communities can identify with and feel belonged. For many, besides the formal knowledge gained, it’s a safe place where we learn culture, socialization, and civics.”
The journey of Agyeman has been filled with challenges, but it’s met with the satisfaction of helping others achieve their dreams too.
“Don’t overlook immigrants and refugees, they have a lot to contribute, especially the ones that may not speak English,” Agyeman said was his advice to other Iowans. “Don’t overlook the talent and what they have to contribute to the communities we live in.”
By Claudia Thrane