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Gideon Boakye has not had much time of late for personal reflection. The Virginia Commonwealth University senior is completing his classes and preparing to start a new job at Johnson & Johnson in June.

“I haven’t had time,” he said, laughing. “I graduate May 11 and my last final is May 10.”

But Boakye is a reflective person — and knows he has a lot to contemplate as he finishes his degree in business administration from the VCU School of Business. His parents immigrated to the United States from Ghana before he was born. He grew up in Springfield, Virginia, and watched his uncle earn an accounting degree from Norfolk State University. Boakye, too, was drawn to business, and VCU was a natural fit when it came time to select a school, he said.

“I grew up in a very diverse area,” he said. “When I saw that VCU provided the same type of environment, it was a no-brainer for me.” 

On Saturday, Boakye will become the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college. At VCU, he poured himself into student organizations, including the African Student Union and the VCU chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants. He is part of the first cohort of students to graduate through the university’s TRIO program, a federally funded program that supports first-generation students. Boakye also was active in his fraternity, the Theta Rho Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. Last year, he and his fraternity brothers produced a short film, “Celebrate VCU,” that highlights the university’s diversity. The film, Boakye said, was produced in response to the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. 

“Part of being in an African American fraternity, it’s our duty to be a voice for the black community,” Boakye said. “We wanted to talk about how our differences at VCU is really what makes us similar as a community.”

Those differences — the diversity of people, cultures and organizations — make VCU a special place, Boakye said. It was his decision to pledge Alpha Phi Alpha that led to him working on the film. And it was Boakye’s membership in NABA that led to his new job. He joined the association in the fall of 2017 and that October attended an association conference in Norfolk. Business students throughout the East Coast were there, Boakye said. He wedged his way to the front of a crowd when the doors opened for the career fair and went straight to the Johnson & Johnson booth.

“I had my eye on them,” Boakye said. “I had learned Johnson & Johnson was ranked best company to work for and [about] their credo, which emphasizes the importance of not only treating their customers great but making the treatment of employees a priority.”

“It was the most stressful time of my life,” Boakye said. “I did not sleep or eat. I lost 9 pounds stressing about how everything came down to this moment. I was thinking about how my mom and dad migrated from Ghana just to provide me with this opportunity.” Two days later, Boakye was offered a summer internship in supply chain finance in Santa Ana, California, where he helped calculate inventory at distribution and manufacturing centers and retail stores. He excelled in the role, and later applied for a spot in Johnson & Johnson’s Finance Leadership Development Program, a rotational opportunity for aspiring finance professionals. Boakye and other finalists were flown to New Jersey in early August for a two-day interview. 

It was an anxious moment, and when Boakye was accepted into the program, he was overcome with emotion.

“It was as if all my hard work had finally paid off,” he said. 

Boakye’s first rotation will be in Piscataway, New Jersey, at Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters. He aspires to one day become a chief financial officer and start his own business. He said he has come a long way since his first days at VCU.

“I remember I was a very shy, introverted kid from Northern Virginia. One thing I learned was to become comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said. “I had to go out of my way to build skills that a CFO would need. I started doing more public speaking, I started taking more leadership roles. My advice to any student: Be comfortable being uncomfortable, because that’s the only way you can grow, during uncomfortable or new situations.” 

Graduation will bring many emotions. Boakye’s mortarboard is a tribute to his family, with messages to his parents laid over the red, yellow and green stripes of the Ghanaian flag. Boakye lost his father, Adarkwah, to liver cancer when Boakye was 12. Ever since then, Boakye said, he has tried to live in his father’s image.

“I’ve had to make sure I become the person he wanted me to be,” Boakye said. 

“I’m not a person who celebrates milestones — I just achieve them and move on to the next one. But this graduation isn’t for me. It’s for everyone who was part of my journey, for my family and my community — all the prayers at my church, my friends. This is for them.”

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