Running Down a Dream

Add up all the distance Louis Ayensu-Mensah ’13 has run on the soccer field or doing the 100-meter and 200-meter dash events and it would equal just a fraction of the journey that brought a shy kid from Ghana, Africa, to St. Norbert College. 

The two-sport athlete began that journey nine years ago, when his family made the trip to New Jersey in the fall of 2004 so his father could continue his schooling to become a pastor. 

Ayensu-Mensah, who turned 15 years old shortly after getting to the United States, struggled with English and the new surroundings, but adjusted quickly. He took up soccer – a sport he had already experienced because of its popularity in Ghana. The eighth-grader was less familiar with another sport he encountered at his new school: track and field. “The track coach there asked me to try out to see it,” Ayensu-Mensah says. “I did, and really enjoyed it.”

Graduating with a 4.0 grade point average and excelling in sports, Ayensu-Mensah was well-placed to continue on to college. But qualifying for financial assistance was a different matter. His father was in the country on a student visa, so Ayensu-Mensah did not qualify for Pell grants, for many scholarships or even for in-state tuition rates. 

Linda Pliska, a St. Norbert parent who knew the family through their church, arranged for Ayensu-Mensah to visit the school. The family has maintained its college connections: Pliska’s daughter Gay Pliska ’88 and son-in-law Stephen Matyshak live a few miles from campus, and Stephen is the son of Stanley Matyshak (English, Emeritus).

“When I came to St. Norbert to visit, I really liked the atmosphere,” Ayensu-Mensah says. “Also the international-students recruiting office made me feel very welcome to the place.” He also liked that the school stressed academic success along with the athletic programs: “I love being in sports, but it’s secondary to academics and things of that nature. I really appreciate that.” 

Ayensu-Mensah was offered a scholarship that covered half his tuition, and earned a leadership grant. To save on housing, he stayed with the Pliska family. He also drew the attention of St. Norbert benefactor Patricia Baer, an aide and mentor to Louis until her death. Eventually Ayensu-Mensah received permanent-resident status and qualified for the loans and Pell grants that helped him finish his education. 

Ayensu-Mensah graduated in May with a degree in chemistry, a passion he discovered while studying at St. Norbert: “The more I took, the more I liked it.”

This fall he begins his doctoral studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., assisted by a fellowship and a full scholarship. It’s a move that’s particularly gratifying to the Pliskas: Linda’s husband, Michael, is a Rensselaer grad himself.

July 2, 2013