LOWELL - Gordon Halm started his education in the shade of a tree in Winneba, Ghana, West Africa. There were no Smartboards or iPads . . . or desks.
The Winneba Anglican Primary School was under construction when he started kindergarten in the early 1960s, classes were held outside; the teacher had a chair, the barefooted students sat in a circle on rocks.
Saturday morning, Halm will don his cap, gown and infectious smile and strut across the stage at the Tsongas Center to accept his bachelor's degree in liberal arts with a concentration in psychology and sociology from UMass Lowell.
He has traveled a long, long way.
Palm kernels. From floor to ceiling, they filled half a room in the Halm family's modest home.
Young Gordon watched as his parents spent hours upon hours repeatedly pounding the chestnut-sized hardened pods with rocks, harvesting the fruit to be refined into oil. At times they would fall asleep while doing so. His mother peddled the palm oil, used in cooking, to make soap and for medicinal purposes, neighborhood to neighborhood to earn money to provide an education for her 11 children.
At the time, Gordon did not appreciate the sacrifices of his parents, who although uneducated themselves, understood the value of education.
"I didn't help as much as I should have," admits Halm, who immigrated to Lowell in 1995. "I just wanted to get out of there; I spent my days and nights playing table tennis, it was like therapy to me.
"Today I can look back give my parents credit for what they did for us, it wasn't easy," he says.
As a young man, Halm fled Ghana for Liberia, with nothing but a knapsack.
Homeless and unemployed in a new country, he found shelter with a friend of a friend, worked in construction and as domestic help. It was in Liberia that he met his future wife, Beatrice Stevens.
She had the opportunity to immigrate to the United States in 1989 to live with her brother. She attended Lowell High School and earned degrees from Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell. Halm stayed in Liberia, where a tribal civil war soon broke out.
"I lived in fear," he says. "If you see anybody who survived the war in Liberia is it only because of God. We lived one day at a time, not knowing when we got up in the morning if we would survive the day. There were bullets flying everywhere."
In 1995, Halm made his way to Lowell and reunited with his wife.
"Growing up in Ghana, all we saw from the United States was MTV and Soul Train and musical movies," he recalls. "We felt this place was a land flowing with milk and honey. Once we got here we realized it is indeed a beautiful country of opportunity, but you have to work hard for whatever it is you want to achieve."
Gordon Halm worked hard. He earned his GED and an associates degree from Middlesex Community College. For several years he worked at LifeLinks, assisting developmental challenged people and in his spare time weaved his way into the fabric of his new hometown.
Halm, an elder at the Eliot Church, overseas the Thanksgiving dinner that serves hundreds annually; he founded the city's African Cultural Festival and an annual table tennis tournament. He has become as much of a Lowellian as he is a Ghanian.
He left LifeLinks for a job as a community and parent liaison at the Lowell Community Charter Public School, but was laid-off the following year, a setback he took in stride.
"Whatever comes my way I see it as a moment that I can use to make a positive change," Halm says, adding the lay-off provided the opportunity to study at UML full-time, as well as take an internship in the mayor's office. "I like to take risks; I see myself as someone always willing to help, to take on the challenges and make a positive change."
While he is now a Lowellian, raising three sons (RaySam, 15; Isaac, 13; and Tyler, 9) with his wife in the city's Centralville neighborhood, Halm has not forgotten from where he came.
His charitable foundation, the Donkoh-Halm Charitable Organization, raises money to support the Winneba Anglican Primary School.
"There is power in education," he says. "Everyone is given talents, but if they do not have the tools or opportunity to use them they will go to waste."
In the last 12 years, Halm's group has provided thousands of dollars in computers, sports equipment, books and scholarships to his alma mater. The way he sees it, by lifting up the young people of developing nations like Ghana, the entire world becomes a better, more prosperous place.
"Education is the key," says Halm, whose education does not stop Saturday. He is already enrolled in UMass Lowell's Peace and Conflict Studies Program to pursue his master's degree and one day plans to earn his Ph.D and find a policy job where he can make a difference, maybe even working for the United Nations.
"So long as we are alive, conflict is going to happen at all times," he says. "I have seen how disputes have hindered progress in my homeland and it is my hope that with the education I acquire, at some point whether through my presence or my contribution from outside I will help bring a positive change to the minds and hearts of the people of Winneba and will in a way work to build the world.
"Where there is life there is hope," Halm smiles. "I hope I can use my talents to bring hope and encouragement to others."