They climb the steps to the stage in cap and gown as accomplished students, learners who have finished their courses of study, but descend as masters in their fields with the documentation granting them access to productive life.
Many of them have longed for months to get out of the academic setting and put their hard-earned knowledge to use, but few have anticipated the date quite like Fredricka Quarshie.
After receiving her master’s degree in chemistry, Quarshie will board a plane for a 5,400-mile flight to her native Ghana, where her 6-year-old daughter and her soon-to-be husband await her.
“I’m excited to say that I’m heading home on Sunday to see my daughter after two years of leaving her at home with my mom,” Quarshie said Friday morning, before her graduation ceremony rehearsal. “I know she’s in good company, but I love her so much, and I miss her so much.”
At 27, she was left to care for her then 8-month-old daughter, Huldah, when her husband died in 2008.
“It was really a very challenging time for me,” she said. “But I went through it, by the grace of God, I always say.”
A couple of years later, Quarshie was working as a water treatment chemist at the oil refinery in Tema, Ghana, when a trip to the United States for a conference helped her realize that advancing her education would help her small family improve its economic position.
“I decided to do my master’s degree, because I realized I had been out of school since 2003,” she said. “I started looking out for schools, and I just chanced on ETSU. I applied, I was admitted and I got graduate assistance, which was good.”
Before she left, Quarshie met a man and fell in love again. She hopes to marry him upon her return home.
She applied for an unpaid study leave at the refinery before she left, and said she hopes her job is waiting for her upon her return.
Coming from the costal city in the near-equatorial African nation, Quarshie said one of her biggest shocks from living in Johnson City was the temperate weather.
“The major, major difference is the weather; that kills me,” she said, smiling. “It’s so cold! Like this morning, it was 19 degrees, I was like ‘Oh, my goodness!’ ”
She did get an idea of what to expect from Ghanian citizens already living in the States, and a Congolese missionary couple who picked her up at the airport took her to buy needed supplies when she arrived.
During her studies, Quarshie lived in an apartment in Buc Village on campus, making an easy commute to her classrooms.
She said she was greeted warmly by the students, the faculty and the general community at the university and in Johnson City as a whole.
“ETSU has such a warm society,” she said. “Everybody’s warm, everybody’s so nice, especially my advisor, Dr. (Cassandra) Eagle. It was such a great opportunity for me, because she doubles as the chair of the department.”
Through her stay, Quarshie was given the opportunity to present at a conference and discovered an untapped passion: teaching.
At first, she was hesitant to instruct undergraduate lab students, but soon found that fostering their discovery was thrilling.
“When you take somebody who doesn’t understand anything in chemistry, zero, and by the end of the semester, know so much that they’re able to solve a problem, that’s fulfilling to me,” she said. “I never knew I could teach, but my students were telling other people that I was so great and explained it so well.”
Even with the demands of her studies, she said she often found herself missing Huldah and her home in Ghana.
Quarshie visited home once during her two-year study abroad, and frequently chats with her daughter online on Skype.
“Sometimes I get so lonely,” she said. “I have friends that I chat with all the time, but it’s a different feeling, being with your daughter.”
But now, with the journey home only a day away, Quarshie is brimming with joy.
“I feel so excited already,” she said. “I feel like it was worth the sweat, it was worth the time I spent here, the sleepless nights, but it will be wonderful to have the degree in my hand. It was very difficult to leave my daughter and stay here all alone, but it will be wonderful tomorrow.”
Now with a master’s degree, Quarshie hopes to resume her job at the refinery in Tema. One day though, she hopes to pursue a doctorate, possibly in pharmacology.
For now, though, she said she’ll be content spending a few years with Huldah after their time apart.