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English PhD grad achieves dream of becoming 'obenfo'

A smiling man dressed in a white shirt stands near a tree on a sunny day.

Mohammed Sakip Iddrisu, who is graduating with a PhD in English (writing, rhetorics and literacies) from ASU this spring. Courtesy photo

April 26, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

As one of seven children from a working-class family in Ghana, Africa, Mohammed Sakip Iddrisu set his sights from an early age on earning a PhD from a prestigious university and becoming a professor.

This dream began in sixth grade when he heard a renowned linguist being interviewed on Peace-FM, a local radio station. Iddrisu was impressed by his eloquence, knowledge and wisdom — which the radio host acknowledged with the title "obenfo," meaning, literally, "a learned intellectual."

"I said to myself, ‘I was a good student and needed to have that title, too,’” said Iddrisu. “I didn’t know what it took to become a professor or what professors do, but even in grade school, I began preceding my name with ‘obenfo’ on my personal notebooks.”

After earning his undergraduate degree and graduating as best student in the Department of English at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, Iddrisu continued his journey to obenfo at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he earned a master’s degree in rhetoric and writing studies. Once again, he was awarded as an outstanding graduate student in the Department of English.

The next stop on his journey — Arizona State University, for a PhD in English (writing, rhetorics and literacies). On March 21, Iddrisu defended his dissertation, “The Call-and-Response of History: Rhetorical and Literate Social Practices of Healing, Re-Education, and Reclaiming Black Humanity among African Americans in Ghana.”

“His dissertation speaks to the beauty and humanity of being Black,” said Professor of English Elenore Long, Iddrisu’s dissertation chair. “Attentive to what Ghana has meant to such figures as W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, Mohammed is also attuned to what these legacies mean for African Americans returning to Ghana in this current moment of racial reckoning.”

Iddrisu’s research has been accepted at numerous premier conferences, and he has published in prestigious journals.

“With his research, Mohammed is developing new methods at the intersection of global Black rhetorics, transnational literacies and public life,” said Long. “I’m eager to see where he’ll focus his intellectual energies next.”

When he needed a break from studying, Iddrisu loved to watch soccer with friends from the Ghanaian and African community, eat at restaurants with colleagues, and ride his bike. He attended events in the Muslim and African communities, eager to meet new people and have great conversations and good food.

In the fall, Iddrisu will be joining Texas Christian University where he will be an assistant professor of English rhetoric and composition.

In the following Q&A, Iddrisu talks about his experience at ASU and plans for the future.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: My interest in English, not as a language, but as an academic field is something that built up incrementally. And so I have different moments of epiphany right from when I was an undergraduate in Ghana until when I started my PhD in writing, rhetorics, and literacies at Arizona State University.

I think my greatest “aha” moment when I became absolutely convinced about dedicating my time and energy to studying rhetoric and writing happened in El Paso when I was a master’s student. While there, I heard different stories about how hijab-wearing Muslim women navigate their visibility in public life and in their communities, and this motivated me to want to situate my research in community literacies within the field of rhetoric and writing studies.

I was convinced that through research in community literacies, I will get to work with and learn from real people and use that knowledge to work collaboratively with others in advancing a just and equitable present and a more just future for us all.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: At ASU, I wore many hats — as a PhD student, teaching assistant, volunteer, and an advisor to people in upper administration at the Graduate College. Regardless of the hat I wore, I learned the value of inclusion. I am a Muslim, Black African, first-generation, international, multilingual, and from working class, and I was quite surprised at the many opportunities I was given to share my perspectives and to do real work that was aimed at making the ASU experience better for people who share many of my identities. This was remarkable.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: There is a story here. When I was a master’s student at University of Texas at El Paso, my thesis advisor was Dr. Jennifer Clifton, who earned her PhD from the English department at ASU. I admired her intellectual prowess and training in the field, and I felt I wanted to get my PhD at the same university where she earned hers.

Then, I spoke with her about my intention to apply to ASU and she was like, “Oh, Mohammed, you will thrive as a scholar at ASU!” Later that year, I met Professor Elenore Long and Professor Emeritus Keith Miller at a conference in Knoxville, Tennessee.

After my talk at (a) conference, both professors further encouraged me to apply to ASU. So, I did, and here I am graduating with my PhD from this incredible program and university. Dr. Clifton was right: I have thrived as an emerging scholar here at ASU!

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Truly, I have learned several lessons from my professors, especially lessons related to working with students as an advisor, mentor, or just an instructor.

Undoubtedly, Professor Elenore Long taught me the most important lesson. She taught me the transformative power of kindness and presence: that being kind and lending a listening ear to students goes a long way in supporting students' success. For me, this lesson is going to serve me well in my academic career.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: There is a Ghanaian adage that says, “A child who washes his hands well will eat with kings.”

I highly recommend that students should be intentional in building good rapport with their professors. College education, especially graduate studies, comes with many challenges, but great relationships with professors, marked by respect and willingness to learn, are crucial if a student yearns for success.

In my experience, I believe many professors are willing to genuinely support and guide students to achieve their best potentials, and if we, as students, build a good rapport with them and are humble enough to learn from them, they will direct and support us to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: The third floor of Ross Blakley Hall at the ASU Tempe campus. I used to go there between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays. This spot gave me a good view of the sports pitch by the Sun Devil Fitness Complex. When I got tired from reading, I would typically stand by the glass window and watch students playing soccer, which is my favorite sport, under the floodlight at night.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I accepted a tenure-track assistant professor position in English rhetoric and composition at Texas Christian University (TCU). In total, I received five tenure-track offers from TCU, Emory University, California State University at Fullerton, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and State University of New York at Buffalo. I also received an assistant teaching professor position at Georgetown University in D.C., and a lecturer position at University of Southern California.

I am particularly excited about joining TCU because this position is tailored to my research interests in community literacies, and I look forward to exploring the transformative potentials that come with doing community-engaged research. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is one of the fastest growing metros in the U.S., and I believe there is much meaningful community work to be done there.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Given that my entire dissertation focused on reclaiming humanity, without hesitation, I will donate all in support of humanitarian efforts in Gaza because the situation there now is the greatest test to us as humans on this planet.

Written by Sheila Luna

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