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Student from Ghana bonds with American family

Exchange Exchange Student

In this Feb. 11, 2017 photo, exchange student Abigail Adusei, right, works with her teacher Kelly Nyquist during class at Manual Academy in Peoria, Ill. "Being an exchange student I've been able to learn different cultures and things much different from what I was used to," said Adusei, who is a foreign exchange student from Ghana. "Really all I knew about culture in the United States was what we saw in the movies, and Manual High isn't anything like what I saw in High School Musical."(Ryan Michalesko/Journal Star via AP)

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By PAM ADAMS
The (Peoria) Journal Star

Sunday, March 19, 2017

PEORIA, Ill. — Before she left her home in Ghana, Abigail Adusei had heard of Springfield because of Abraham Lincoln. She knew of Chicago because of Western movies, including the teen romantic comedy "High School Musical."

"I love that movie," she says. "I wanted to come here because of that."

Since coming to the United States as a foreign exchange student, Adusei has learned West Peoria, along with Peoria, Chicago and Springfield, are located in the state of Illinois. And Manual Academy, where she's a senior, is not like the movie.

"But it's close, it's kind of cool."

Adusei is the second foreign exchange student Brian and Tamara Parker, of West Peoria, have hosted in the past two years. The first, Petros Koinaris of Germany, made a mark on Manual's track team. Tamara Parker still talks to him daily through social media.

"I've always wanted to do humanitarian work," Tamara Parker says. "After him, I knew I wanted to have kids from all over the world stay with us."

Adusei, the Parkers and their 8-year-old nephew, Ricky Washington, looked like an ordinary family recently as they exchanged what they've learned about each other's cultures. While the Parkers talked about family visits to Chicago museums and volunteering with local community organizations, Ricky snuggled against Adusei like an adoring younger brother. Tamara Parker had dinner waiting — Mexican food, Adusei's favorite — but only when Parker makes it.

But Adusei, the foreign exchange student from one of Africa's most stable democracies, and the Parkers, the African-American family in West Peoria, haven't escaped confusion and uncertainty about President Donald Trump's executive order severely restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Parker passed up a chance to host a Muslim student from Nigeria next year. "I don't have anything against Muslims," said Parker, a member of Richwoods Community Church. "But I cannot bring that child here and take a chance on having her harassed or discriminated against. I never want to put a child in that situation."

Adusei is in the United States after winning a competitive grant from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Study Program (YES).

The U.S. State Department began the program in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. YES offers scholarships to eligible students from countries with significant Muslim populations. Adusei is Presbyterian, but Ghana is about 20 percent Muslim.

The number of applicants has decreased since Trump's executive order, according to Jennifer Slater, of Academic Year in America, who coordinates local arrangements for several foreign exchange programs, including YES.

Slater expects the actual number of students coming to the United States to remain steady, though more may be leery about applying. "I just think the whole world is watching," Slater says.

In the meantime, Adusei has grown so attached to her host family and her not-like-the-musical school she barely gets homesick.

Her two brothers and her father, a principal, were excited about her trip, she says. Her mother, a teacher, had to warm up to the idea of her only daughter traveling more than 6,000 miles from their home.

In Ghana, Adusei attends a Catholic boarding school in Kumasi, about 100 miles from the family's home in Cape Coast. The school is more regimented than her U.S. counterpart, she says. Classes, mainly science and math, are tailored to her goal of becoming a pediatrician, with little time for extracurricular activities.

At Manual, she joined the volleyball team, the choir and focused on her favorite subject, math. Taking one math class at a time — enriched second-year algebra, in this case — was a culture shock. Geometry, algebra and other types of math are combined in the same class at her Ghanaian school, she says. The fact that she could take both music and science classes was a surprise.

"I like it here because of that."

She also tutors Tamara's nephew, Ricky. "It's nice having a big sister," he says.

Parker thinks of her as a daughter. The Parker family is already planning a trip to Ghana after they visit their former foreign exchange student in Germany. "She's the most respectful young lady and I don't know how I got so lucky," Parker says of Adusei.

And as much as Adusei loves "High School Musical," she's learned a new favorite song during her time in the United States.

She whispers the name in a reverent tone. "It's the national anthem."

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