Exchange Student Helps Open World in Geneva

April 2, 2011 -- Oppong arrived in August through the American Field Service, which facilitates the arrival of about 700 foreign exchange students in the Midwest each year.

By Frank Vaisvilas
Geneva Republican

Seventeen-year-old David Oppong lived his whole life in the West African country of Ghana, so he never saw snow first-hand until he came to Geneva High School as a foreign exchange student.

He was amazed.

Oppong went sledding with his Geneva host family, the Kilmers.

Darlene Kilmer, the mother of a junior son and a freshman daughter at the high school, as well as a daughter in fifth grade and a son in kindergarten, said she enjoyed seeing Oppong’s reaction to the wonderment of snow.

“I was excited when I first saw snow,” Oppong said. “It all was white and fluffy from the rooftops to the lawns and I thought that was pretty cool.”

In addition to frolicking in the snow, Oppong joined the Kilmers on a trip to Rochester, New York and a backpacking excursion to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan.

“David is a really nice boy,” Kilmer said. “He works hard in school and he’s a member of our family now. We’re really going to miss him when he goes back to Ghana.”

Oppong arrived in August through the American Field Service, which facilitates the arrival of about 700 foreign exchange students in the Midwest each year.

Oppong will stay in America with the Kilmers until August while he goes to school and leans about America.
Batavia resident Robbin Lang, a hosting coordinator for AFS, said host families typically form life-long relationships with their exchange students.

“For host families, it brings the world closer to their children and they learn a lot more about the world,” she said.

In return, foreign exchange students learn a lot about American culture.

Lang said one reason the government is willing to grant student visas is because foreign exchange students often leave with a much higher opinion of America, creating a more positive view of the United States across the world.

There are currently nine AFS foreign exchange students in Tri-City high schools from countries such as Sweden, Thailand, Philippines and Azerbaijan. In addition to Oppong, there are two other exchange students at Geneva High this year.

This is the first time the Kilmers have hosted an exchange student, and initially, Darlene Kilmer was hesitant about the idea because of her family’s busy schedule.

And because she has two kids in high school already, she was a little hesitant to bring another teen into the house.

 Yet, Kilmer decided this would be the best year to host a student before her two of her youngest children start new schools next year when they advance in grade level.

“We have not regretted it,” Kilmer said.

 Since Oppong’s arrival, the family has been able to work out a schedule with some juggling.

“I first thought that David was really nice and quiet,” Kilmer said. “I also was really nervous about hosting him, but it turned out OK. He is fun to hang around and fits in our family well.”

Meanwhile, Oppong ended up in Geneva because he said it matched his description of what he wanted from the program.

Oppong had an idea about what American life was like before he left Ghana, but he discovered it’s a lot different than movies and TV shows that portrayed society rampant with gang violence.

“That wasn’t true,” Oppong said.

During his first few months in the United States, Oppong said he really missed home, but the Kilmers helped him adapt and he’s learning certain American nuances.

However, once he arrived in the United States, Oppong didn’t have to overcome a language barrier because English is the official language of Ghana. The country was formerly a British colony before becoming the first sub-Saharan African nation to achieve independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. Former United Nations Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kofi Annan is from the republic.

Still, Oppong found plenty of differences between life in his new home and his homeland.

He said teens in Ghana also surf the Internet and listen to their iPods, but not quite as much.

“To help me adjust better, I joined a number of clubs at school and the Boy Scouts,” Oppong said. “It was a little hard at first, but I made friends after a few weeks.”

When it comes to the American school system, he had to adjust to the fact that students in the United States move from class to class during the school day. In Ghana, students stay in the same classroom and different instructors come in to teach throughout the day.

“I find that there’s a lot of similarities between kids here and in Ghana,” Oppong said. “For example, we hang out with our friends after school, go to games together and do lot of fun stuff.”

In addition, Oppong was excited that sports are very much a part of the school system in the United States. He joined the Geneva soccer team last fall and said he made a lot of friends.

“I’m having lots of fun here,” Oppong said.

And Lang said connecting people from different cultures is what AFS is trying to achieve.

“You’re helping to build bridges between cultures,”she said.

For next school year, Lang said AFS is seeking families like the Kilmers who are willing to host exchange students. Roughly 40 host families are needed in northern Illinois.

In fact, Darlene Kilmer said the family’s experience with Oppong may even lead them to participate in the foreign exchange program again in the future.

And after months of having Oppong live with them and exposing him to America, the Kilmer family hopes the tables are turned one day. They want to stay connected to Oppong, and would like to one day visit him in his country.

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