By Antoinette Herrmann-Condobrey
Meet Sylvester Senyo Ofori-Parku from the Titedo me clan of Peki-Avetile. He’s sharp, driven and unassuming.
At 36, Ofori-Parku might have exceeded the expectations of many but not his own. The U.S.-based assistant professor of advertising and risk communication, and father of two, has earned some enviable accolades already. But, this academic career is still taking off, if you ask him.
Ofori-Parku arrived in the U.S. in 2011, going into his Ph.D program as a Promising Scholar. He admits that moment was his proudest. It only got better.
The Ghanaian-born would walk to the applause of thousands, four years later, when he received University of Oregon’s Journalism School’s most outstanding doctoral dissertation award. The same research received UO’s Public Impact Award and two more from major academic organizations in the journalism and communication field. Earlier, in 2014, Ofori-Parku was one of two people awarded the Tokyo Foundation’s Young Leaders Fellowship. Of all the honors received so far, it is his first top paper award at a major academic conference that continues to evoke “the best, most-cherished feelings.” Incredibly, this millennial does not think he has achieved excellence yet.
“Excellence, for me, is a moving target. It’s a journey whose destination is unknown. I think I am still punching below my weight. Maybe, I will recognize excellence when I see it. Or, perhaps I won’t—but I will keep laying one brick at a time.”
What Dr. Ofori-Parku epitomizes is modesty that strikes you as exceptional in an increasingly superficial world, full of phony values and vainness.
As a kid, this son of a math teacher dreamed familiar dreams. He wanted to be a medical doctor. Then he thought flying airplanes and traveling the world would be fun. But he didn’t seem to have luck with his father’s math gene. Ofori-Parku figured this out early; in junior secondary school. Armed with a strong self-awareness, he began focusing his thoughts on different directions and would soon figure out the humanities or social sciences were his thing. This realization came with new aspirations—to be a lawyer or a journalist. It “informed my course selection going into senior secondary school, although my teachers felt I had to choose the sciences.”
In senior high school, Ofori-Parku heard about Ghana Institute of Journalism and University of Ghana’s School of Communication Studies. Curious about the SCS’s entry requirements, he wrote to the school, discussing his career interests. The young boy was pretty amazed to receive a response from the highly regarded institution. Theirs was a graduate level program and he would need a first degree to be considered. Armed with this information, he went for a bachelor’s in sociology and geography at University of Cape Coast. After a year of assistantship at UCC, following his graduation, Ofori-Parku enrolled in SCS to pursue a master’s degree in communication. Fate and ambition define what followed.
A journalism profession was the plan going into the master’s program. It ended in advertising and strategic communication after some freelance work for Public Agenda newspaper. The starting point for what would become a remarkable communication career was AdSpace, Accra, Ghana. It was a brief stint, Ofori-Parku recalls. Next, the young graduate landed a communication consultant position with Kojo Yankah’s Yankah & Associates. There was no question that a Ph.D was in the plan. The move however happened abruptly.
At Universal McCann, one of Ghana’s top advertising agencies where Ofori-Parku worked as a research coordinator, he would cross paths with a University of Oregon student. Sara Kirsch, a Study Abroad student, was interning in Ofori-Parku’s office and would become an important link to information that motivated him to go for his doctorate degree far earlier than planned. Within a year of moving from Universal McCann to teach at Christian Services University College in Kumasi, Ofori-Parku left the shores of Ghana to the U.S. to pursue his doctorate degree in Communication and Society, specializing in environmental/health risk communication & sustainability. At University of Oregon, the program director he spoke to from Ghana about his interests would become his academic advisor.
One can say with little doubt that Ofori-Parku is doing what he loves. Teaching, talent development and research are areas his heart is deeply into. That exactly is what he gets to do at University of Oregon; having done same at University of Alabama for two years. The journey hasn’t been without challenges, however.
This all-Gbi son is a suck it up and half-full kind of person. But “staying away from home,” and “balancing school—now, work—with family,” are experiences he describes as tough.
“I have two beautiful, energetic, curious, and witty boys,” he says about Anorkplim who turned eight in April, and Atornam, who is nearly five."
Born in Tema, Greater Accra region, Ofori-Parku has fond memories of his birthplace as well as Ashaiman, where he lived with his parents and sisters; Breman Essikuma, Tarkoradi and Peki.
Even though his parents: Newton Isaac Amengor, and Margaret Bonsu—both Gbis from Peki-Avetile—separated when Ofori-Parku was two and a half, he still remembers his father coming home to their Ashaiman residence with lots of goodies.
Amengor, who chose the Ofori-Parku last name for his children, worked at Volta Aluminium Company Limited (VALCO). Margaret, who passed away in 2017, was a schoolteacher. Later, when Amengor became a math teacher and taught at Ghana Senior Technical School (GSTS), Ofori-Parku and his sisters, Selorm and Misornu, would move to live with him in Takoradi. “I spent most of my childhood / teen years shuttling between Takoradi and Ashaiman,” he recalls.
Ofori-Parku’s visits to his original hometown, Peki, decreased as he grew older, but those childhood visits to the countryside come with priceless memories—“going to the farm: fetching firewood, planting maize, getting soaked in the rain, running down the hills wanting to be the first to get home (as a ‘city’ boy, I was always the last).”
Now, with two boys of his own, his hands are full. He is the type that loves to stay home when not at work. Not bad with these two bundles of energy—"running around the house: bike rides, kicking football (soccer), playing catch, reading bedtime stories, putting the boys to bed, etc.”
As for challenges, “you don’t overcome them. You keep juggling and hope you don't get burned. Or, you hope the balls cool down. That’s it.”
In the next three to seven years, the goal is “to be a tenured associate professor and build a stronger international community of collaborators.”
This Gbivi won’t qualify any of his accomplishments at this point as greatly satisfying, but he sure knows what gives him the greatest joy: “Family, and the belief that in the end, everything will be all right.”
With globalization reaching its fourth phase and radically impacting all aspects of life, one thing seems obvious to Ofori-Parku: how little things have changed in Gbi after all these years. Nevertheless, he has some motivational words for the youth:
“You are not your family’s history. Neither are you whatever circumstance you find yourself in. It’s all right to dream or want to do something. But staying committed to the process is how you get things done. Everyone you meet in life has something to offer you, yet not everything they offer will prove useful; this is a perspective you need to keep you in check as you embark on this journey called life.”