For Yale junior, looking for opportunity in hardship brings success

Obed Gyedu-Larbi’s journey from Ghana inspired his mission to serve those in need at a larger scale. At Yale, he’s gaining the tools to make it possible.
Obed Gyedu-Larbi.

Obed Gyedu-Larbi (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

As he finished high school in Ghana, at an age when students all over the world dream of attending a school like Yale, such thoughts never even occurred to Obed Gyedu-Larbi.

At the time he lived with his mother, a single woman who worked as a food vendor and could not afford to send him to college. So instead, Gyedu-Larbi took a seven-day-a-week job serving the family of his well-to-do uncle, which he would hold for the next few years. On busy days, the workday began at 5 a.m. and ended around midnight, and whether he was healthy or not, he would clean, cook, shop, and do landscape work, among other duties.

It was a hard period. But Gyedu-Larbi was grateful for the skills he was gaining, especially when his uncle taught him how to manage the financial accounts of his real estate business. He reminded himself that, no matter the challenges of any given moment, there was always something to aspire to.

And he knew that he still wanted to pursue higher education — even if that dream was on pause. But he could not have predicted that he would one day be a student at Yale College, where he is now majoring in political science with the aim of landing a career in finance or public policy sector wealth management.

Nor could he have imagined the winding pathway that would bring him here.

In every situation I find myself in, I try to weigh the good and the bad,” said Gyedu-Larbi, who is now a Yale College junior as part of Yale’s Eli Whitney Students Program for nontraditional students. “I focus on the opportunity and tell myself that whatever situation I am in, I am not going to be there forever. And there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Obed Gyedu-Larbi during a visit to Yale for an admissions interview.
Obed Gyedu-Larbi during a visit to Yale for an admissions interview.

Sometimes hard living, and a lucky lottery win

Gyedu-Larbi spent his early childhood in a rural village in southeastern Ghana before moving with his mother and siblings to the capital city of Accra. While his life was mostly a happy one, he also remembers times when he and his siblings would sleep on bare floors in the homes of relatives, even brief periods when they were homeless.

So despite the arduous schedule, when Gyedu-Larbi landed the opportunity to work for his uncle after finishing high school, he was grateful for the opportunity. After saving up some money, he eventually left the job and became an account clerk for a fledgling real estate company in Accra. Then, in 2014, he was selected in the Diversity Visa Program, an annual U.S.-government lottery that allows non-citizens from select countries the chance to apply to live and work in the country as a permanent resident. It was his third try in the lottery, and he used some of the money he had saved to acquire his birth certificate, a passport, and other documents needed to gain entry in the United States.

After my visa interview, I was so excited to be selected that I happily walked the hour-and-a-half home from the U.S. embassy instead of taking a taxi just to have a conversation with myself,” he recalled.

Through connections in his church in Ghana, Gyedu-Larbi found a host in America, who when he arrived in 2015 provided him free food and lodging for two months so that he could save up for his own place. He quickly took a job as a sales clerk at a clothing store in the Bronx and, within a few months, was able to rent his own apartment. He later became a full-time baggage handler for Greyhound at its Port Authority terminal.

But his eyes were still on returning to school. And after two years, in 2017, Gyedu-Larbi enrolled in Bronx Community College-City University of New York (BCC).

At BCC, he served in student government, became a peer mentor, and was admitted into the rigorous Kaplan Education Foundation leadership program for underserved, high-achieving students, which helps prepare them to a transfer to a four-year college.

With no family members around to celebrate his first birthday in the United States, Gyedu-Larbi decided instead to mark the day by buying and distributing food to homeless people in the Bronx, something he had done periodically since he arrived in New York.

Obed Gyedu-Larbi and Latsha Lee distributing food in New York City.
Obed Gyedu-Larbi and Latsha Lee distributing food in New York City. The two met in a first-year seminar at Bronx Community College and co-founded Project Feed NYC to distribute food to the homeless.

Working in Times Square for Greyhound when I first came to America, I saw homeless people outside in the cold and snow, right near the biggest McDonald’s in the world,” he remembered. “I was very astonished by this, and so I started giving them food when I could.”

These experiences made him want to serve those in need at a larger scale. So while still enrolled at BCC, Gyedu-Larbi founded Project Feed NYC, a nonprofit organization that distributes food and warm clothing to homeless people. With a classmate, and mostly in the summer, he walked with a shopping cart along Fordham Road in the Bronx distributing necessities, often spending hundreds of dollars of his own money to purchase food, hand warmers, and winter jackets. All the while he continued to work at Greyhound and managed to save enough to buy a Bronx co-op where he still stays during monthly trips to the city, and where he continues to distribute food to the homeless.

Sometimes it was stressful, and I was very tired,” he said of those days managing a nonprofit, working at Greyhound, and studying. “But just as I did when working for my uncle, I kept my vision of the future in mind.

For me, it was important to not only work hard for myself, but to care about the welfare of others, including the less privileged. This was something my mother always taught me, to always remember to give alms to the poor.”

Rhoda Tamakloe, a Kaplan Education Foundation adviser while Gyedu-Larbi was at BCC, said that his commitment to social justice, equity, and equality — as well as his resilience, integrity, academic success, and leadership potential — are what distinguishes him and other Kaplan Scholars.

Obed stands out as one of the top 1% of students I have worked with over the last decade,” said Tamakloe. “A student of humble means, Obed has worked hard to ensure that he shares the fruits of his labor with the most vulnerable in his community. He has found great success by never compromising his beliefs and securing every resource with the intention to pay it back to those who have supported him and pay it forward for future generations.”

The road leads to Yale

Two years ago, during his last semester at BCC, Gyedu-Larbi applied to a long list of colleges, including several Ivy League institutions. He thought he was done with the exhausting and stressful application process when another Kaplan Educational Foundation adviser told him about Yale’s Eli Whitney Student Program.

By then I really didn’t want to apply to yet another school!” said Gyedu-Larbi. “But at the last minute I filled out an application to Yale, not really thinking that I’d end up here.”

Obed with other graduating Kaplan Education Foundation Scholars in 2019.
Obed (second from left) with other graduating Kaplan Education Foundation Scholars in 2019.

However, a few visits to the university, where he said he was always greeted with warmth, helped to put Yale in the running. The generous financial aid he received clinched his decision to attend. “Being a student with no family support, especially financial, I quickly greeted Yale’s offer with an ultimate joy,” Gyedu-Larbi said.

At Yale College, Gyedu-Larbi has taken courses in economics, finance, and accounting to prepare for his next goal: to start a nonprofit geared toward helping people in low-income communities become financially literate.

This dream for me began in Ghana, where I saw my mother manage a fund for a small group of women, like a personal bank (called susu), but never make any profit. She could have been a hedge fund manager if she had been better prepared!” he said with a smile.

I’ve seen relatives who were once rich become poor and wealthy Black celebrities who squander their fortunes,” Gyedu-Larbi continued. “How does it happen? At Yale, I am taking courses about people’s attitudes and behaviors, government policies, economics, and other factors that affect wealth management and longevity, as well as how to build wealth.”

Last summer, Gyedu-Larbi gained experience in the field of finance and accounting as an intern at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. Next summer, he plans to work in the fixed-income division of Morgan Stanley in New York City.

I want to take what I learn to help the kind of communities that I grew up in — whether in Ghana, the Bronx, or even somewhere else like Louisiana — with financial literacy and management,” he said. “For me to do that, I think I also have to be a good role model.”

At Yale, Gyedu-Larbi continues his service to others as the treasurer of the Dwight Hall-affiliated Harbor Scholars Program, a scholarship and advocacy organization for undergraduate students at Yale and across Connecticut who don’t have traditional family support systems. He also serves on the finance team for the youth mentoring program Leadership, Education & Athletics in Partnership (LEAP).

Obed has stood out from day one for his enthusiasm for Yale, his appreciation of a liberal arts education, and his deep commitment to better the lives of others,” said Risa Sodi, assistant dean of academic affairs and director of advising and special programs in the Yale College Dean’s Office. “While he himself lived in straitened circumstances, he still focused on helping those in need.

Few may be aware of the sacrifices Obed has made since coming to the United States alone as a young adult, including working unenviable jobs, taxing himself to put aside money for an apartment, and saving tirelessly so his family will be able to visit him at some future date,” Sodi added. “I find his work ethic and his heart astonishing and humbling, and I’m grateful that this remarkable individual is part of our Eli Whitney and Yale community.”

Gyedu-Larbi hopes one day to buy a home so that he can invite his mother and other family members to join him in the United States. Meanwhile, his student peers in the Eli Whitney Students Program and other Yale friends and associates, as well as fellow members of a local branch of the Qodesh Family Church, serve as “family” away from his native Ghana.

I think my faith, along with hard work and good luck, is what led me to where I am today,” he said.

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